The early-morning sun shone through the clear glass mezzanine, the bright golden beams catching the many facets of a flawless diamond ring, attracting the eye of the breathtaking brunette that wore it. The woman lifted her hand from the escalator handrail, her fingers splayed and eyes growing misty is she watched the stone sparkle. A throaty sigh escaped her full lips, and her lustrous blue eyes drifted sideways, where a lanky, balding man stood holding her other hand. Squeezing it affectionately, her heart fluttered as he flashed her a small smile and squeezed hers in return. As beautiful as it was, she couldn't help but feel it paled in comparison to the simple gold band that rested next to it.

A faint blush colouring her cheeks, Lorelei Lecouvreur – she hadn't decided whether to keep her name or switch to his; she was partial to the alliteration – looked over the small pink diamond. Her eyelids, painted in a light blue shadow, fluttered as she felt tears of happiness well up within the cerulean orbs. How had she managed to be so lucky?

"The baggage carousel should be this way, dear," Her husband stated in the slow, droning voice that for inexplicable reasons sent tingles up her spine. Turning with him, she nearly bumped into a curiously pretty Asian boy, wearing what she thought was a school uniform, with long brown hair tied back into a loose ponytail.

"Excusez-moi, s'il-vous plait," Lorelei murmured, offering a short bow in apology as she picked up the boy's spatula. "I did not see 'ou zere."

The boy looked at her uncomprehendingly for several seconds, then with a roll of his eyes, muttered something in Japanese and yanked the cooking utensil from her hand. Pushing past them with an angry mutter, the brown-haired boy vanished into the crowd. Lorelei's lips pinched into a pout as she watched; even in an airport, there was no need to be so rude.

Spouting several 'excuse me's' and 'excusez-moi's', the newlyweds managed to push their way to the baggage claim. Stepping into the waiting ring of people from their flight – which Lorelei noticed included the rude brown-haired spatula-boy– she leaned against her man again, her hand sliding from his and wrapping around his waist. Resting her head on his shoulder, she watched the slow procession of luggage, waiting for their dark green bags to come into view. She was in no hurry, however; the sooner their baggage arrived, the sooner she'd have to admit that this wonderful honeymoon was over, and that they really did have to return to Bayville High next week.

Sighing, she buried her face into her husband's shoulder, placing small butterfly kisses against his neck. Laughing lightly as she felt his face redden, she ignored the incredulous looks from those around her. She didn't care if they didn't look like they belonged together, the simple fact was that they did.

"I think I see our bags, dear," Dr. Varnsen said softly, his face still beet-red from her public display of affection – that was something she'd have to get him over, she mused as she regretfully detached herself from the man. Sashaying over to the carousel, her husband right behind her, Lorelei grabbed the largest of her bags with one arm, muscles tightening as she lifted it off the belt and set it on the floor by her feet. Grabbing the next two - lighter then the first by about seventy pounds - she passed them over to her husband, who shifted the carry-on hanging from his shoulder to accommodate them.

Crouching down, Lorelei made a quick inspection of the large bag; as far as she could tell, it hadn't taken any damage in transit. Locating the latches on either side, she decided to open it up and check on the contents anyway. She had picked out a beautiful Japanese tea set for her sister, and held no trust whatsoever for airline baggage handlers.


"Un moment, ma coeur," She replied softly, snapping the latches open and pulling up the heavy lid. She stumbled back as a small brown blur shot out from her unmentionables and latched itself to her chest.


Evolution One Half

Disclaimer: I own the original characters, all of 'em! Melinda, Harrison, Thaliá, Dante, Lorelei.... every last one. The other, non-original characters, such as those from X-Men: Evolution and Ranma Nibunnoichi, belong to their respective owners.

Yeah, they got the better deal.

Warning: This is a long one. Viewer discretion advised, one scene in this chapter led to an embarrassing event involving a prereader, a mango, a bus and an old lady. You have been warned.

Chapter Eighteen

"It's plainly obvious," Emma said with a frown, staring at her cousin out of the corner of her eye, "That something is going on, and you are not telling me what it is."

"And I think it is equally obvious," Melinda replied, staring into the mirror before her while delicately undoing her long braid. "That sometimes you are simply too nosy for your own good."

"And I shall remind you," Emma countered, reaching for the toothpaste and squelching a small amount onto her white toothbrush, "That I am only nosy because you aren't telling me as much as you used to. Ergo," she added, speaking through the motions of running the rough bristles against her molars. "'Ou are 'idin' 'omethin' fro' 'e, an' I 'anna kno' what i' is."

"Em, first of all, do not talk with your mouth full," her cousin replied, running a pearl-handled hairbrush through her now-unbound hair. "Second, there are some things I am not going to tell you, and you are just going to have to accept it."

"I don' 'anna." Emma pouted in response, pausing to spit into her sink. "You have to give me something so that I may continue to live vicariously through you."

"You," Melinda repeated, raising an eyebrow. Placing the hairbrush back on the counter, she examined herself in the mirror, her eyes drifting to her eyebrows. "Live vicariously through me? Is your own love life, for once, so utterly stagnant that you have to resort to this?"

"Stagnant is not the proper word," The other blond insisted after rinsing the remains of the toothpaste from her mouth. "Stalled is much more accurate."

"Do I detect a tone of bitterness?"

"I am not bitter," Emma defended, glaring at her cousin from across their shared bathroom. Opening the mirrored medicine cabinet on her side of the island counter in the center of the washroom, she continued. "I'm merely acknowledging that I must change my tactics in my pursuit of Mr. Summers. He has more than one woman vying for his affections, and if I am not mistaken, it has put him into a position that he is quite unfamiliar with."

"Thus you have determined," Melinda replied, frowning at her own reflection as she maneuvered the tweezers to their proper position around an errant eyebrow. "That you have to – OW! - actually give him some time to get to know you before you screw his brains out?"

"While I would not put it so crudely-" Emma coughed reproachfully, taking her gaze away from her search of the medicine cabinet. "Yes."

"How very unlike you," Melinda teased, examining her face in the mirror again. "You must have actual feelings for this boy beyond those of a carnal nature."

"He fascinates me," Emma replied, frowning as she returned to her search. "At first, it was the oddness of his eyewear and the hole in my memory, but now..." she trailed off, finding it difficult to put into words what she was thinking.

"It must be the 'undefinable allure'," Melinda said, sticking her tongue out. "A certain je ne sais quoi. You know, the same allure you teased me about when I used it in reference to Ranma?"

"Speaking of, would you like to talk about how he's been avoiding you?"

"No I would not."

"Then how about telling me what happened to my special hair treatment formula?" Emma frowned, closing the medicine cabinet with a scowl. Staring into the mirror, she shuddered upon seeing the condition her hair was in.

"Your what?" Melinda questioned, looking over at the other girl in confusion. Several seconds later a wide grin broke out. "Ah, I see your roots are showing again..."

"Quiet you," Emma hissed, glaring into the mirror and, with clenched teeth, trying to mentally will the brown roots to recede. "You didn't touch it?"

"Do I look like I need to?" Her cousin replied, shaking her head as she ran her fingers through her unbound hair. "Unlike you, dear cousin, these golden locks are completely natural." She paused, adding after a moment. "Although...."


"I am almost certain that I saw Donna running out of here earlier."

"Oh, shit..." Emma cursed, racing barefoot across the pink tile floor. Throwing open the large wooden door and bolting down the halls, she skidded to stop at the top of the spiral staircase that lead down into the foyer. With dismay, she bent down to pick up the open bottle of Frost Formula 13 that rested upon the top step. She gave it a light shake and groaned; it was empty.

Glancing between it and the floor below, Emma took several tentative steps down, listening intently to the laughter coming from the main family room. "Oh, sweet Astronaut Jesus..." she muttered, reaching the ground floor and tip-toeing across the light blue carpet.

Half a step from the doorway, a four-foot-tall bundle of compressed energy wearing a pair of black pajamas ricocheted into her path. Bright blue eyes shone beneath a fringe of dark brown hair that bounced as the nine-year-old girl hopped from one foot to the other. Emma winced at the sight – in particular, at the new platinum blonde streak that ran through the middle of her younger cousin's brunette coif.

"CousinEmmaCousinEmmaCousinEmmalookatmelookatmelookatme!" Donnatella Frost exclaimed, not standing still enough for Emma to actually get a good look at her. "Ifoundabottleofstuffinyourbathroomandputitinmyhairandlookatmenow!I'maskunk!"

Sighing, Emma turned around, not watching as the girl continued her impression of a skunk hopped up on Jolt Cola and methamphetamines. Slowly plodding back up the stairs, she raised a hand to her hair, fingering the dark brown roots with undisguised loathing.


Emma shuddered. She had to find another bottle before tomorrow.

Bright searchlights scoured the grounds of the Stokes County Maximum Security Prison, following their programmed paths along the large concrete and steel buildings and illuminating the stoic figures in the watch towers that lined the thick walls that surrounded the compound. Guards walking the halls didn't even shield their eyes as the light passed over their faces, long-accustomed to the necessary security measures that intruded upon their nightly rounds.

Beneath the grounds, a single guard sat with his feet propped on the surface of a small steel table inside the monitoring room of the Special Solitary wing. Thumbing through a magazine with a bored expression and idly bopping his head to the music playing through the headphones at his ears, the guard didn't notice as the blue status light on the far wall suddenly changed to a bright red, a faint klaxon now filling the room.

The guard also failed to notice the rapid changes in the multitude of readouts and monitors that lined the walls. Nor the rising of the danger level or the lifescan monitor showing increased mental activity of the wings sole occupant.

What did get his attention, however, was the room suddenly turning an angry red and several more klaxons blaring, surprising the man and causing him to fall out of his chair.

"What the-" He declared, ripping of his headphones as his eyes shot over to the nearest monitor. "Oh, shit," He cursed as the reality of the situation hit him. "This had to happen on my shift..." Grabbing the radio at his shoulder, he switched it on and spoke frantically. "Hey, Captain, we got a big problem down here!"

"Acknowledged," The man on the other end of the line said calmly, walking through the gauntlet of security that led into Cain Marko's cell. Standing stiffly before the doors as they opened before him, he stepped inside, his stony features quickly absorbing everything he saw. Marko's actual cell was submerged in the floor, although the white smoke seeping through the cracks and into the room indicated the severity of the situation.

"Sir!" A white-coated technician raced towards him, glasses nearly falling from his face as he came to a sudden stop. "PLEXUS-1 is down!"

"Systems two-through-seven going down!" A second tech reported.

"Understood." The captain said, his eyes narrowing to thin slits. "We can't fix it down here. You will have to go upstairs and initiate the override sequence."

"Negative, sir," The first tech shook his head. "The system has completely shut me out. This is a bigger malfunction than we're equipped to handle."

The captain watched the Juggernaut's prison slowly rise out of the floor; fortunately, it looked as if the monstrous criminal was still paralyzed and unaware. The cellular paralysis bio-fluid was still in effect, but the replacement and filtration systems were connected directly with PLEXUS-1. With the system down, there would nothing to replace the current supply when it lost effect...

"Sir," He heard the first tech say. "How are we to proceed?"

Staring directly at Marko's unconscious form, the captain felt his stomach clench – had the man's eye just twitched? "We will proceed," He said slowly, not taking his eyes off the criminal in the center of the room. "By making a call."

"Alright," Ranma said, opening his eyes and staring intently at his companion. "You've had some time t'think it over. Ya think ya found the answer?"

"Aye, possibly," Rahne nodded hesitantly, suppressing the chill brought about by the cool morning air. Or maybe it was the memory of his strange yet enjoyable behavior towards her when he thought he was a cat. Closing her eyes, she directed her attention inward and away from the memory, ignoring the slowly dawning world around them and the magnificent view provided by the mansion's rooftop, where Ranma had decided to hold their morning training.

Taking a deep breath, Rahne let the world around her fall to the wayside, focusing entirely upon the homework assignment Ranma had given her earlier in the week. How did she make her ki do what she wanted it to do? What prevented it from simply doing whatever it wanted, or not doing anything at all?

"Remember," She heard Ranma say. "Ya don't need t'give me an answer if ya don't got one yet."

Cracking one eye open, she growled in her throat and gave him a glare, refusing to give in to the subtle taunt. "I need no more time," She replied.

"Then tell me." Her teacher retorted. "How do ya do it?"

Rahne grit her teeth, racing through her mind for the answer. Ki flowed through the body's spiritual pathways; channelling emotion into the pure energy allowed one to direct it at their will. But once it was there... how DID she make it do what she wanted?

Eye snapping open, Rahne felt her mind become clear. "I just do it." She said softly.

Ranma smirked. "And...?"

"An' that is it," The Scottish girl concluded. "It does what I want because that be what I want it t'do."

"Very good," Rahne's grin grew wide as Ranma nodded approvingly. "Your emotions are what drive your ki, and your willpower is what controls it. You become faster because you want to become faster, stronger because you want to become stronger."

"There 'as t'be a limit, though..." Rahne said, tilting her head questioningly.

"The limit is how much your body can take," The pigtailed boy replied. "How much extra energy your muscles can handle, combined with how much ki ya have actual access to." He paused, lifting one hand and forming a small ball of ki in his palm. "You can will your body t'create a ki blast, but if ya don't have the actual strength to handle the channelling, or the right amount of ki, or the right mindset and method of using your willpower, its gonna fizzle."

"How do ye-"

"Hold on," Ranma interrupted, clenching his hand and snuffing out the ball of ki. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small, black object. Taking a moment to look at the screen, he nodded and slipped it back into his pants.

"What is that?"

"Prof gave me this 'Blackberry' thing," He replied, standing up. "To get in contact with me since I can't hear his telepathy and stuff. He wants to see me and the rest of the team about something, so I gotta go."

"Wait," Rahne grabbed him by the sleeve, using him to pull herself to her feet. "How do ye gain the strength ye were talkin' about?"

"That's your next assignment," Ranma replied with a smirk. "Find out and come tell me."

Rahne pouted, crossing her arms over her chest. "Why are all yuir lessons so Socratic?"

"I'd answer that if I knew what 'Socratic' meant."

"Ye teach mainly by askin' questions an' makin' me figure out th'answer." Rahne explained with a roll of her eyes. "Like Socrates did."

"Ah, well," Glancing over his shoulder at her, Ranma was silent for several seconds. "Lesson twelve," He finally replied, giving her a brief wave and leaping off the roof.

"Lesson twelve me cute arse," Rahne pouted, sitting back down. The younger students would be up for their morning session soon, but she still had nearly an hour to contemplate the new problem her sensei had given her. "More likely just enjoys makin' me sweat."

A bright red blush suddenly lit up her face as she reconsidered her choice of words. Her eyes began to glaze over, and she conceded that maybe that wasn't such a bad thing...

Catching the upper window-frame with his toes, Ranma swung himself into his room, bouncing off the bed and making a perfect ten-point landing with his feet inside his slippers. Preening briefly and taking in the imaginary accolades, his shoulders suddenly drooped. "Feh," He muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Nobody's ever around t'see me do the real cool stuff..."

"Well ain'tcha the little glory hog," a tired yet teasing voice said from the doorway.

Looking up, he smiled and bowed in Rogue's direction. "Ah, so I did have an admirer."

"Despite yerself," She replied, yawning. The Southern goth, who's hair had obviously not had even a passing encounter with a hairbrush, was leaning against his doorframe dressed in a pair of green pajamas. "Yes, ya do." Shaking her head in a vain attempt to get the sleep out of her eyes, she pushed herself off the doorframe. "C'mon, Professor X wants to see us."

"Yeah, I got his text message thingy on the doohickey he gave me," Ranma replied, falling into step next to the girl, adjusting his gait as she slipped an arm around his waist; he assumed it was to steady herself. The girl was not a morning person. "D'you know what it's about?"

"Nope," The girl shook her head, snuggling tighter against him – the boy was warmer than her bed, and if she couldn't have one she'd take the other. "He jus' said it was urgent. Maybe it has somethin' t'do with Jean?" She gave him a pointed look, which was ruined somewhat by the gaping yawn that split her face.

Ranma shrugged, not liking the direction this was going in. "I dunno-"

"Speakin' of," She continued, jabbing him in the ribs with a finger. "Mind tellin' me exactly what a 'null' is?"

"Uh, sure," Ranma gulped; the question reeked of foreboding. Glancing up, his eyes darting in every direction for some kind of distraction, he was keenly aware of the string of idiotic jabbering coming out of his mouth. A small part of his brain was trying to get his attention throughout this, but the vast majority of his consciousness was more involved in avoiding a potential eruption from the cute short-haired girl. In his experience, women didn't react well to him telling them things.

A distraction had presented itself as soon as they turned the corner, in the form of their sleepy team mates. "Oh, hey look," Ranma said, pointing. "Everyone is already here. Mind if I tell ya later?"

"Uh, yeah, no problem," Rogue said, giving him an odd look. "Ya know, ya coulda said that earlier instead o' hemmin' an' hawin' for the past two an' a half minutes."

"Yeah," Ranma chuckled, scratching at the base of his pigtail. "Dunno what came over me."

The next words on Rogue's lips were silenced by the arrival of their mentor. "I apologize for rousing you all so early," Xavier addressed them, his chair rolling out of the elevator, "but I have just received an urgent summons from Captain Stone."

"Who?" Ranma blinked, mildly annoyed that he had no idea who the professor was talking about. The fearful expressions on the faces of his team mates revealed that he was, in fact, the only one in the dark.

"Captain Stone," Scott repeated, suddenly alert. "From the penitentiary?"

"Woah, back up a second," Evan said slowly, taking an involuntary step back. "We're not talking about another Juggernaut breakout here, are we?"

"No, not yet," Xavier replied, steepling his hands and furrowing his brow. "But his containment unit has begun to fail."

"Got it," Scott said, shifting into strategic mode. "We'll be suited up and ready to go in five." He turned and started off down the hall, gesturing for the others to follow. "Let's move."

"No," Xavier said firmly, his voice stopping the team in their tracks. "I will be attending to this alone. However," he continued, cutting off Scott's protest, "with Ororo still visiting her sister, Logan out on the open road, and Tofu attending a medical conference in Boston, I am faced with a predicament as to your well-being.

"Therefore," The professor continued, turning his attention directly to the three oldest students. "Scott, Jean, Ranma, I am leaving the three of you in charge."

His decision was met with nearly a minute of complete silence.

"WHAT?" Jean exclaimed apprehensively at the same time Rogue exploded with, "Y'all CANNOT be serious!"

"I am quite serious, Rogue," Xavier replied calmly.

"No offense intended t'Jean," Rogue replied, crossing her arms across her chest. "But Ah don't think she deserves this kinda responsibility right now."

"Professor, Rogue is right," Jean agreed, shaking her head wildly. Her arms moved around her waist and her eyes turned downcast, hidden under her bright red bangs. "It's- it's just too soon... I-I don't think I can be trusted with this."

"Ah know Ah don't trust you," Rogue muttered.

"I have faith in you, Jean." Xavier told her, his lips quirking into an affectionate smile. "With the exception of what happened earlier this week, I know you to be nothing if not a responsible young woman. I know you can do this."

Ranma highly doubted that, and the way the others were glancing at each other showed they found Jean to be currently less-than-trustworthy. Heck, the redhead herself had admitted she couldn't be given that level of responsibility. Although, honestly, he was a little more perplexed at the notion that Professor Xavier considered HIM to be a responsible adult. Had the man already forgotten the whole 'lime Jell-O in the pool' incident?

"Well?" Xavier asked, breaking the silence. "Scott, Ranma, Jean... can I count on you?"

"Absolutely," Scott said without hesitation.

"Probably not," Ranma replied just as quickly.

"What was that, Ranma?" Xavier asked with an elevated eyebrow.

"Uh," Ranma chuckled, scratching the base of his pigtail. "I said, 'no prob, won't let ya down.'"

Xavier smiled and turned his gaze to Jean; the redhead flinched, her jaw dropping open and eyes shutting tightly. Incomprehensible noises escaped her throat for several seconds. "I-I-I..." She shook her head, and looking closely, Ranma could see her knuckles turning white as she clutched her sides. "I-I'm sorry, Professor." She finally said. "I ju-just can't. It's too soon. You say you have faith in me, but... I don't. And I don't think the others do either... hid everything for so long, abused everyone's trust... I don't think I can trust myself with this."

"You are certain of this?"

"I'm an addict," She whispered, seemingly to herself. Her head continued to shake, but no further explanation was given.

"Very well," Xavier sighed, moving his chair forward and gently grasping Jean's arm. "However, I want you to realize that your acceptance of your problem shows a great deal of the responsibility I spoke of."

A shaky smile came across Jean's lips, and she lifted a hand to clasp Xavier's affectionately. "Don't worry, Professor," She said, a degree of strength returning to her voice. "Ranma and Scott can hold down the fort. You just worry about your brother."

"Yes." The older mutant's expression turned anxious again, his brow furrowing as his mind was brought back to the current situation. "Thank you. I shall return in a few days at the latest." Without another word, he put his wheelchair in reverse and returned to the elevator, the doors sliding shut soon after.

"Alright," Scott said enthusiastically. "Since we're up, how does everyone feel about a quick session of pre-dawn Danger Room high-intensity interval training?" His suggestion was met with snorts of derision and annoyed grumbles as his friends staggered back to bed.

Scott pouted as Jean walked past him, throwing back over her shoulder, "Don't let the power of command go to your head, Professor S."

"What's the deal?" Ranma said, scratching his head as Scott followed after, seeming to give up on his own idea when a massive yawn came over him. "I thought it sounded like a damn good idea..."

"You an' Scott are th'only ones then," Rogue replied with a yawn, leaning her head against his shoulder. "The rest of us happen t'think gettin' more sleep is a better idea." She leaned up, brushing her lips against his cheek. "C'mon, lets go back to bed..."

"Nah," Ranma shook his head, turning around. "I think I'm gonna get some trainin' in. You can sleep if you wanna though." He didn't make it more than a few feet before a small but strong hand grasped his wrist, and he soon found himself being dragged backwards down the empty hallway.

"Ah said we should go to bed," Rogue said with a sly smile, pushing the door to his room open and shoving him inside. "Ah never said nothin' 'bout sleep."


"Wait, let me rephrase that," She said through a yawn, slamming the door shut. "Ah'm goin' t'sleep, you can sleep if ya want, but either way you're playin' the pillow."

Looking over the recipe she had been given, Kasumi couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. She had been, and still was, quite excited to take the European Desserts course offered this semester, but the eldest Tendo daughter had been hoping to make something a little more challenging than a simple dacquoise.

Admittedly, to most culinary enthusiasts, putting together the layered French cake was no simple task, but to Kasumi, it seemed a little too... easy. She had already mixed the meringue, deciding to make it a little more difficult by attempting four layers rather than the traditional two, and had filled the ground almond mixture into the pastry bags while waiting for the oven to reach the desired 350 degrees.

Pressing the parchment paper firmly into both of the baking sheets, Kasumi caught a glimpse of her teacher making her rounds among the students, quietly observing and making sure the recipe was being followed as written. Hoping the instructor didn't notice the small modifications she had made to the original, Kasumi smiled sweetly at the large woman. Pretending to pay more attention than necessary to the act of squeezing the mixture into the coiled discs that made up the layers of the French treat, she was rewarded with a simple nod of approval as the woman made her way past.

The four discs came together with remarkable ease, and Kasumi smiled happily as the oven beeped seconds later. Picking up the first baking sheet, she glided to the over and pulled open the door. She was about to slide the first layer onto the top rack when she frowned suddenly. Something seemed wrong...

Slowly shutting the oven door, the young woman set the discs down and tapped a finger against her lower lip. The readout on the machine said clearly that the oven had reached the required temperature, but she had the oddest feeling that it was wrong. How could that be, though? There was no way she could tell just from the amount of heat she had felt coming from the oven. She had to be mistaken.

After a few more seconds, Kasumi shook her head slowly, staring intently at the device in front of her. No, something definitely was wrong; she could feel it. The oven was off by more than a few degrees – about twelve, unless she was mistaken. That simply would not do.

Taking a step back, Kasumi tapped a finger against her lips as the full schematics for the Bosch Evolution™ HDS71x2U Dual Fuel Range came forth in her mind – although, she honestly couldn't recall where she might have seen them. Thinking to herself for a brief second, she smiled and nodded decisively. She could fix it. Turning the oven off and removing the plug from the outlet, Kasumi grunted as she pulled the large appliance away from the wall.

Her classmates looked up briefly, curious as to the source of the strange noise. Upon noticing it was merely Kasumi, most turned back to their work, more focused on ensuring they received a good grade for their project than in witnessing another example of Kasumi Tendo's eccentricity. One girl muttered about her showing off again, and was the recipient of several glares from other students.

Pulling a Philips-head screwdriver out of her apron pocket, Kasumi twirled it in her fingers for a few moments before applying it to the screws holding the back panel of the oven in place. She didn't notice as the instructor approached her from the other side of the oven, watching with a raised eyebrow and features quickly drifting into irritation.

"Would you mind explaining what you are doing, Tendo-san?"

"Oh, sensei," Kasumi smiled up at her. "Don't worry, I'll have it fixed in a few minutes!"

"If there is something wrong with the oven," The teacher said through clenched teeth, "Then it is a job for the school's maintenance department, not you. Please return to your assignment."

"Oh my, I'm afraid I can't," Kasumi replied, grunting as she pulled off the back plate and set it against the wall. "The thermometer is reading the temperature as twelve degrees higher than it actually is."

"That isn't a problem," The older woman shook her head. "The dacquoise will turn out fine."

"Oh, but page 308, paragraph three of Nick Malgieri's How To Bake, third edition states that when making any kind of meringue," Kasumi stated, quickly locating the thermostat as the full text of the page ran through her mind. "The temperature must be exactly right. Anything higher or lower than stated could easily result in the failure of the dish."

The woman frowned at the girl's insubordination, and cast a small, unnoticed glare at the pair of students who appeared to be taking notes. "Nevertheless, I am the instructor in this class, and you are unnecessarily wasting time that could be spent making-"

"Finished!" Kasumi announced, turning the last screw to reattach the back plate of the oven.

"-your... I'm sorry?"

"I fixed it," The eldest Tendo daughter replied with a bright smile, pushing the appliance back into position and plugging it back in. Tapping a few buttons on the display, she clapped her hands excitedly; she didn't know how she was able to tell, but it was working properly now. "It wasn't too hard." She explained to the dumbstruck sensei. "A minor twist to the adjustment screw on the thermostat and that was all!"

"One good screw deserves another," One student stage-whispered to another; he was promptly struck with a frying pan by his irate girlfriend.

Her jaw hanging open, the instructor closed it with an audible click, her eyes narrowing at the young woman before her. Turning to look at the students that had formed a rough semicircle around the pair, she growled irritably as she stormed away. "Back to work, all of you!"

Kasumi smiled as the oven beeped, this time displaying the correct temperature. Slipping the baking sheets inside and setting the timer, she got to work on the buttercream.

On the other side of the room, standing by the door and watching with a curious expression, Dr. Jonah Ryan looked over to his associate. "Okay," he said in English, pouring a handful of Skittles into his palm. "I have to admit... I have no idea what's going on."

"She was making some French dessert, and stopped to fix the oven," Dr. Reiko Watanabe replied with a roll of her eyes. "Seriously, Jonah, you speak three languages. Did you think to make Japanese one of them?"

"So sorry," He apologized sarcastically, picking the red Skittles out from the other colours. "I was busy earning advanced degrees in molecular biology and two separate fields of engineering when they offered that class."

"I earned the same degrees you did, in half the time, and still managed to learn both German and Russian," Reiko pointed out, stealing a purple candy from his hand. Grinning in triumph as he sputtered for a response, she turned to look again at the young woman in the classroom.

Reiko and Jonah had been observing the young woman the entire day, having gotten permission to sit in on all of her classes from the school administration. While she didn't personally find the day of observation necessary, Jonah had insisted, wanting to see how the young woman worked in a regular scholastic environment before formally meeting her. European Desserts was her last class of the day, and Reiko's mind had already moved on to the planned meeting that night. The observation phase of science always was the one she found most tiresome.

"Have you seen enough yet?" She asked, leaning against the wall and crossing her arms.

"I could stand to see a lot more," Jonah replied with a grin; Reiko made a face as she saw his eyes move downward, his gaze still locked on Kasumi Tendo. Kicking him in the shin – and smirking as he jumped, his Skittles flying into the air – she turned away from the room and started down the hall. "Pig."

"Where are we – OW – going?" Jonah asked, limping as he followed after her.

"We've seen enough," Reiko answered simply. "Observing the next two hours of the class will reveal nothing new."

"Very well," The man replied, casting another glance over his shoulder. "Any conclusions?"

"Many," Reiko replied, clicking her tongue. "Many more than I thought this little venture would bring."

"She has an... interesting attitude." Jonah commented, pouring the last of his Skittles into his mouth. "Do you think she even realizes how much this school's environment is stifling her?"

"I doubt she does," Reiko shook her head. "It's not in her nature to think that way, I believe. Nor does she realize that each and every one of her teachers is blindingly envious of her intelligence. She's plainly smarter than any one of them, and by a considerable margin."

Jonah snorted. "Hell, she's smarter than most of my colleagues."

"So then you agree with me?" Reiko asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I do," Her companion replied with a sharp nod, his eyes growing slightly distant as he stared off into space. "We'd be foolish to ignore this opportunity."

"Precisely," Reiko smiled, holding the door open for the man as they stepped outside. "We'll drop by her home tonight."

"One thing bothers me though," Jonah said, rubbing his stubbled chin. Reiko looked at him, an eyebrow raised questioningly. "How did she know the oven was even broken?"

Gently pushing open the sliding glass door, Nabiki shivered slightly as the morning air rushed into the living room of the Brotherhood home. Fighting back a yawn, she took a long sip of her French roast – black, three sugars - shivering again as the smooth bitter warmth sent delightful tingles throughout her body.

Her eyes drifted to the small clock on the microwave; 6:04 am. Shaking her head slowly, she turned to look out the open doorway again. Normally, Nabiki Tendo wouldn't even crack an eye open until 6:59 at the earliest, and anyone who tried to make her do so would quickly learn, quite painfully, that she was not a morning person. Only business had any hope of interrupting her beauty sleep and getting away unscathed.

Business was why she was awake right now. Business trumped everything.

Taking another sip of her coffee, the brown-haired telepath stepped out into the yard, her state of mind already becoming clearer as the caffeine took effect. Sliding the door shut, Nabiki walked slowly across the grass, her mind linking with her laptop and making a quick check of her email. Finding nothing of critical importance, she disconnected, focusing herself on the task ahead.

Coming to a stop at the base of one of the trees that dotted the Brotherhood's large backyard, she stared down passively at the boy sleeping at it's base. A large traveling pack sat next to him, the red bamboo umbrella he used as a primary weapon leaning against it. Nabiki eyed it for several minutes; where had the bag come from? She was certain it hadn't been here when he arrived, and she knew the boy hadn't left this spot.

Frowning, Nabiki tapped her foot slowly, putting the mystery aside as she tried to determine the best way to awaken Ryoga Hibiki. Obviously, any kind of physical encouragement would be shrugged off – not that Nabiki would debase herself with such methods. There were far easier ones open to her.

Breaking into the boy's mind was pathetically simple, and seconds later Ryoga's eyes sprang open. Jumping to his feet and landing in a ready position, Nabiki quietly sipped her coffee while waiting for him to figure out where he was. She held the hope that it wouldn't be too long of a wait – then again, Ryoga had always been one toy surprise short of a Happy Meal.

"Settle down, Hibiki," She said drily, snapping her fingers in front of his face. "You're in the same place you've been for the past week."

"Huh?" The lost boy blinked, staring dumbly at the woman across from him. "I felt something in my head..."

"Yeah, that was me, waking you up." Nabiki replied. "Telepath, remember? I didn't have time to let it happen normally, I have a schedule to keep. We have some things to discuss."

"Fine," Ryoga said, crouching next to his bag. Reaching inside he pulled out a portable stove, a small cookpot, and a can of baked beans; inserting the kerosene cartridge, he set it in front of him and lit it with a spark of green ki. "You've kept me here long enough, start discussing."

"Simply put," Nabiki started. "I have need of your services. I want to contract you to train my team for the next several months."

"Why should I?"

"Because I'm asking you nicely." Nabiki said, her voice dripping with honey. "My roommates need training, and you are the strongest person available for the job."

"Again," Ryoga said, pouring the beans into the pot and removing a long wooden spoon from a side pocket on his bag. "Why should I? What's in it for me?"

"Food and board," Nabiki replied, ticking off her fingers as she named the benefits she had decided to offer. "You have a challenge match with Ranma in the next few weeks, I can make sure you get there. I can help your training against him by providing my team as sparring partners. You can train in seclusion here, with or without your powers. And I'll let my sister know what a nice guy you are. Does that sound reasonable?"

"You had me at 'food'," Ryoga replied with a dazed grin. Nabiki raised an eyebrow; food was a better incentive to the lost boy than her currently single sister? Curious.

"Basic needs breed basic animals," Nabiki muttered to herself. "Your classes begin tomorrow morning at 6am sharp. You can pitch your tent here or sleep on the couch inside, I don't really care. Just don't wander off, don't damage the house..." she narrowed her eyes, "... and if you wake me up in the mornings I'll upload thirty gigs of horse porn directly into your brain."

Ryoga blinked, chuckling nervously. "You, uh... hehe... you can do that?"

"You want to find out?"

"Okay," Scott said, turning to face the pigtailed boy at his side. "We can do this."

"No question."

"We are in charge," The taller boy continued, uncertainty giving way to confidence. "We can handle them."

"I can kick any one of their asses if they get outta line," Ranma added, cracking his knuckles. "And they all know it."

"We don't need violence," Scott countered. "We have the weight of the professor behind us. He put us in charge. We have the authority!"

"Damn right!" Ranma grinned, clasping Scott's raised hand in solidarity. "Let's get all leadery on 'em!"

Disengaging from his team mate, Ranma pushed the door open and marched into the dining room. "ALRIGHT YOU LOSERS, ME AN' SCOTT ARE IN CHARGE, AND OUR FIRST ORDER IS THAT EVERYONE WEAR FUNNY HAT- hey are those pancakes?"

Rubbing his forehead as Ranma's attempted overuse of authority was waylaid by the power of his stomach, Scott sighed. "Oh yeah," He said to himself, watching through the open door as the pigtailed mutant drooled over the vast spread laid upon the dining room table. "This is off to a great start."

Plopping himself into an empty chair between Jamie and Jubilee, Ranma grabbed a plate. A few blurry seconds later, a towering stack of food sat before him, dripping with butter and syrup.

"Oh god," Jubilee groaned, turning slightly green.

"Cooooool..." Jamie breathed, his eyes filled with eager anticipation as he passed the toast to Roberto. "Are ya really going to eat all that?"

"If ya ain't careful, I'm gonna steal your waffle too." Ranma grinned, winking at the boy. Pouring himself a glass of milk – best to get some before Evan commandeered the jug – Ranma spun his fork in his hand and attacked.

Jubilee's eyes quickly scanned the table, looking for an open seat away from the living garbage disposal to her right. Spotting one across from her, she was about to make her move when a light reddish-brown blur streaked across the room. Solidifying into Rahne, Jubilee nixed the idea; she'd seen the lycanthropic girl eat, and sitting next to her would be no better.

Eying the food with eager anticipation, Rahne smacked aside the hands reaching for the sustenance that was rightfully hers. Grabbing a large serving plate, she greedily filled it with a small mountain of sausage and eggs. Sparing a glance at her mentor, the young Scotswoman was soon assaulting her food with unbridled avarice, unaware of the annoyed looks directed towards her from Kitty and Bobby - the former staring at her overturned box of cereal, the latter rubbing at his sore wrist.

"Oh, barf," Jubilee said, making another face as she sipped her green tea. There had to be another open seat somewhere... "How can you two eat so much every meal, every day?"

"A martial artist lives by his body.." Ranma said in between mouthfuls, his fork flashing across the plate.

"... an' yer body lives by yer stomach." Rahne finished, pouring syrup over the pile of meat on her plate. "An' I dinnae know if ye know this, Jubilee, but shapeshiftin' burns a lot o' calories."

"Not to mention how much th' Art burns off," Ranma added. Amara asked for the strawberries, apparently uninterested in the explanation.

"I guess," The girl replied distractedly, having located an empty area of the table several feet away from the pigtailed boy. Pushing her chair away from the table, Jubilee stood up-

BAMF "Mmmm! Are those pancakes I smell?"

-and sat right back down, growling in the back of her throat. Of course Kurt would have to port into that exact seat. "I cannot catch a break..." she muttered, forcing herself to focus only on her tea; if she couldn't see them, then they didn't exist...

"Hey," Scott said as he took a seat across from Kurt, raising an eyebrow above his shades. "Who's -Hey!-" he ducked a flying muffin. "Who's making all of this?

"Good morning, Scott!" The door to the kitchen swung open as Jean pushed her way through it. In the redhead's hands was a large tray of waffles, and floating behind her in a single file were a vast assortment of syrups. "Dig in, there's plenty for everyone!"

"Jean?" The tables occupants – minus two martial artists, who took advantage of the distraction to claim the last of the bacon – stared at the girl in surprise. Jamie fell out of his chair and split into three more of himself. "How did you have time to make all of this?"

"Oh," Jean's smile strained a little as she set the tray down in the middle of the table, the bottles syrup landing in a counter-clockwise placement around it; Jamie #3 quickly laid claim to the boysenberry. "I, uh, couldn't get back to sleep after the professor told us about Juggernaut, so I thought, I would, um, surprise everyone with a nice hot breakfast?"

"That was almost-" He checked his watch. "-four hours ago."


"Don't worry about it, Scott," Jean said, agitation creeping into her eyes; two slices of toast buttered themselves and drifted onto Sam's plate. "Please."

"Jugga-who?" Bobby asked, looking up from his food for a split-second – just in time to miss a speedy blur steal a fork-full of scrambled eggs. "What kinda name is that?" A smaller hand swiped a slice of bacon.

"Forget about it man," Evan said, walking past the other boy as he entered the room. Grabbing the milk out of Roberto's hands, he poured a small glass, set it on the table, then proceeded to drink directly from the jug. "You do not wanna know."

"Jamie, just because there are four of you does not mean you get four helpings," Amara admonished the identical boys. "You're only going to make yourself sick when you come back together later."

The door swung open, and a yawning and freshly-showered Southern girl stepped directly into a flying waffle.

"Ahright," Rogue deadpanned, peeling the - fortunately – unbuttered cake-based breakfast delight off her face and dropping it into a nearby wastebasket. "Ah don't think this is th'safest place t'be right now..." Ducking and weaving through a gauntlet of reaching arms, moving bodies, and floating trays of fresh fruit, Rogue managed to snag her gorging boyfriend by the collar. With a grunt she yanked him out of his seat and, ignoring his cries of protest, hauled him out of the room.

"Rogue..." Ranma whined, staring forlornly at the swinging door that led into the dining room. "But... pancakes..."

"Ah'm sorry, hon," She apologized, letting go of his collar and hauling him up to his feet by the arm. "It's a bit too crazy in there for me this mornin'. Besides, Ah thought we could walk t'school today, grab some breakfast along the way, and... talk."

Ranma gulped, immediately forgetting about the food; coming out of a woman's mouth, that word meant trouble in any language. "T-talk?"

"Oh, ya big baby," Rogue said with a smile, kissing him on the cheek. "It'll be fine. Probably."

Leaning against the railing at the bottom of the stairs, Melinda watched with half-hearted interest as her cousin paced in front of the door, her fingers clenching and unclenching in rapidly-increasing irritation. Shaking her head in resignation, she tapped her pencil against her lower lip, turning her gaze back to the sketchbook she held against her forearm. Something wasn't right about that face...

"What the hell is taking them so long?" Emma shrieked, grabbing the door handle and throwing it open. "The courier was supposed to be here an hour ago!"

Melinda rolled her eyes. "Em, it is not that bad." Ah, that was it! The forehead was too wide.

"Not that bad?" Emma repeated, spinning around and glaring at her. "Are you serious? LOOK AT ME!" She pointed sharply at her head, referring to the dark brown roots that were, Melinda was forced to admit, quite prominent against the platinum blonde of the rest of her hair. "I cannot be seen like this!"

"Your vanity is showing, Em. Look, bitching about some slow delivery man is not going to change things," The other girl replied, shifting the grip on her pencil. "You should have thought to bring more Formula Thirteen in the first place."

"So I should have anticipated your littler sister breaking into the medicine cabinet, pouring it on her head, and running around for half the night pretending to be a skunk?" Emma questioned, giving Melinda a disdainful look. "You're right. It's so obvious now. I can't believe I didn't consider that."

"Point," Melinda replied, chewing on the end of her pencil. "So what do you propose to do about it?"

"Throttle the COO of FPX?"

"I mean aside from threats of violence against cousin Dmitri." She said, rolling her eyes and slipping her sketchbook into her schoolbag. "We have an hour before class starts. Even if it arrived this very second, you would not have time to apply it."

Emma growled, ripping the door open and sticking her head outside. Pulling it back in after several seconds, she sighed and looked up. "Find me a hat." She said with begrudging finality. "I'm going... ugh... casual today."

Standing in the open doorway of the Brotherhood of Bayville Boarding House, Nabiki rubbed her chin thoughtfully as she stared at the small brown box she had discovered sitting on the front porch. "Did any of you order anything?" She called out over her shoulder.

Receiving several half-hearted negative responses, Nabiki turned her gaze back to the small package. Shrugging, she bent down and picked it up; maybe it was from Mystique?

Locating the shipping label on the bottom, the middle Tendo raised a slim eyebrow. "Well this is interesting..." A slow grin crossed over her face. Splitting the tape with a nail file fished from her pocket, she pulled back the flaps and looked inside.

"Oh yes," She breathed, her grin now threatening to split her face in half. "This is VERY interesting..."

Glancing over at the boy beside her, Rogue slipped her arm in his and squeezed it lightly as they walked through the mansion gates. "Y'know, we haven't done this in a while."

"Done what?" Ranma asked, his stomach interrupting to make it's displeasure known. "Skipped breakfast?"

"We'll stop at Burger Bomb on the way," She replied, rolling her eyes; trust the boy to kill the mood before it even manifested. "Honestly, stop thinkin' with your gut. Ah meant that it's been a while since we walked to school like this, y'know, just the two of us."

"Yeah," Ranma said, scratching the back of his head. "Scott usually gives us a ride. After breakfast."

"Well, maybe we should turn that offer down on occasion," Rogue said, smiling up at him – and purposely ignoring the continued references to breakfast. "Ah enjoy the alone time. It gives us plenty of time t'just talk."

"Hehe," Ranma chuckled nervously, now noticing the tightness in which the girl clutched at his arm. "Talk. Yeah. Ya mentioned somethin' about that when we left..."

"We do need t'talk," Rogue said.

"Can we do it later?" The boy asked hopefully. "After we get somethin' to eat maybe?"

"We talk now, or we ain't gettin' breakfast," The smile fell from her face, replaced with a look of suspicion. "What exactly is a 'null'?"

"It's just a technique I came up with," He replied defensively. "I was lookin' for a way t'make the nullification last longer without me havin' to touch the person the whole time. I came up with a way of combinin' it with my ki and temporarily blockin' a mutant's powers for a coupla hours."

"And ya used it on Jean?"

"I offered it to her the day we took Varnsen's final last semester," Ranma shrugged. Nodding, Rogue waited for him to elaborate. "She had a headache an' her mind readin' was actin' up. She didn't want it distractin' her durin' the exam. After that, she kept coming back for more..."

He trailed off, but Rogue thought she could piece together what happened after that. "So why didn't ya tell anyone 'bout Jean sooner?"

"She made me promise not to," The pigtailed boy answered. "I don't break my promises."

"Ah understand that," She replied, frowning slightly as she searched for the right words. "An' Ah generally agree with the notion. But..." she paused as they stopped at an intersection. Pressing the walk button with her free hand, she continued. "Don't ya think that some promises just ain't worth keepin'?"

"Breakin' any promise would damage my honour," Ranma's lips compressed into a thin line.

"An' is y'honour worth what happened t'Jean?" Rogue fired back, not willing to give any ground. "Keepin' her little secret kept her from seekin' the help she needed, and we can see how that all ended up. Someone coulda gotten hurt!"

"Do ya think I don't realize that, Rogue?" Ranma said, sighing in frustration. The walk sign lit up, and the pair stepped into the street. "I told her more times than I can count to talk to the Prof, and she said she would."

"But she didn't."

"She said she would!" Ranma insisted angrily. "Jean promised she'd get some help! How was I s'posed to know she'd break it, that she'd gotten addicted to th'nulls?"

"Ain't no need t'get snippy with me, mister!" She retorted, a tad more angrily than she intended. "Ya probably had the best of intentions-"

"Damn right," The boy muttered.

"-but you should have told someone!" She finished, cutting through a group of grade-school children waiting for their bus. "Dammit, Ranma, some promises should not be kept! Keepin' Jean's problem from the rest of us did her more harm than good." She looked up at him, giving his arm a gentle squeeze. "Understand what Ah mean?"

"I guess," Ranma agreed begrudgingly. "I just don't like breakin' my word. Mosta my life, my honour was th'only thing I had – I can't just give it up."

"Ah know," Rogue nodded, glancing right and left before walking out into the empty street; seconds later a car appeared, honking angrily. "But keepin' the wrong promise does more damage t'your integrity than breakin' it."

"Yeah, I guess."

"And don't use that null thing no more."

"The nulls are fine," The pigtailed boy said, shaking his head. "I mean, it uses the same energy as my normal nullification, and that ain't caused nobody no problems..."

"Jus' don't be stupid 'bout it," She teased.

"I make no promises."

"Smart," Rogue grinned. "Why didn't ya tell me Melinda kissed your girl-side?"

Ranma jerked suddenly, taken by surprise at the sudden change in topic. "How didja know 'bout that?"

"She told me," Rogue replied, looking up at him out of the corner of her eye. "At Duncan's party, durin' the fight with Risty. Ya told me her car got stolen, and ya told me you walked her home, but ya didn't say anythin' about turnin' into a girl or her lockin' lips with your redheaded half."

"Didn't wanna talk about it," Ranma said lamely, glancing away and taking a sudden interest in the local flora. Rogue could tell the boy didn't like being put on the defensive like this.

She pressed the matter. "Why didn't ya tell me that it happened? Despite what ya may insist, Ah am your girlfriend, Ranma, and Ah don't like you keepin' stuff like this from me."

Several seconds of silence passed between them, the void filled by the sounds of early-morning traffic. Rogue waited patiently for him to respond, only glancing away from his face to ensure she didn't lead them into a head-on collision with the growing number of people on the sidewalks.

"Ya know about my old fiancées, right?" He said finally, his voice taking on a nervous inflection. Rogue raised an eyebrow, surprised and secretly pleased he was willingly bringing up an element of his past.

"Is that was this is about?" She asked, her lips twisting into a small smile. "You were afraid Ah'd jump to conclusions if ya told me about it, just like they would?"

"How'd ya know about that?" Ranma asked, blinking in surprise.

"Nabiki told me," She replied, smiling a little wider at the cute expression of surprise on his face. "She told me an' Melinda about all of them months ago. Ah think blondie even bought some info on 'em..."

Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, Rogue ignored the disgruntled muttering of the people forced to walk around them. Turning him to face her directly, she slipped her arms around his neck and smiled, rapping him on the back of his head with her knuckles. "Sugah, haven't ya known me long enough t'realize Ah ain't like those girls?

"Ah care about you, Ranma," She pulled him against her tightly, pressing her cheek against his affectionately. "Ah ain't gonna call ya a pervert for some stupid little misunderstanding, and Ah'm perfectly willin' t'let you explain situations like this." She pulled away, giving him a reproachful eye. "What grinds mah gears," she continued, poking him in the chest with two fingers, "is when ya don't tell me, and Ah gotta drag it outta you like this."

Rogue giggled at the bewildered look on the boy's face, and jabbed him in the chest again. "Understand?"

"Not really..." Her elbow embedded itself in his stomach and Ranma grinned weakly. "Okay, yeah, I get it... tell you stuff."

"Good," She said sweetly, lifting her arms behind his neck and staring into his eyes. Pressing her forehead against his, she spoke softly, her lips brushing against his and sending delightful tingles down her spine. "Jus' keep all that in mind if this ever happens again... okay?"

"O-okay," Ranma gulped, keenly aware of the many people openly staring at them. Rogue knew she wasn't helping matters when she pushed him up against the nearest wall and pressed her lips softly against his, but she was honestly past the point of caring.

"Now," She whispered, her words slightly muffled by his mouth, knowing the next thing she said was sure to drive him wild. "Let's get some breakfast..."

"I don't like it." Captain Stone declared, his stony gaze locked on the comatose form of Cain Marko. The officer in charge of the Juggernaut's holding cell was a tall, leanly muscled man in his mid-forties, his dark hair in the process of turning salt-and-pepper beneath his hat. "It's far too risky. There has to be another option."

"Shutting down the security grid is the only solution that makes sense," Xavier replied calmly, moving his chair to the officer's side. "I have reviewed all of the other scenarios, and not one of them is as likely to result in a success."

"But what happens during the twenty second reboot sequence?" Stone shot back, turning to look at the other man. "Twenty seconds may not seem like a very long time..."

"His paralysis should not wear off that quickly," He hypothesized, running the numbers in his head. "We should be safe."

"Very well," Captain Stone nodded reluctantly and turned to the uniformed officers standing by the door. "Alert the base to a code twelve! I'm not taking any chances."

Observing his half-brother through the three-inch thick reinforced glass containment unit, Xavier couldn't help but feel a certain unease rise within him. Twenty seconds was not a long time, but if the rest of the operation did not go properly, it would be long enough for Cain to regain consciousness.

He could not afford to make any mistakes.

Reviewing the Calculus homework she had completed the night before, Jean tried to ignore the spastic twitching of her left eye.

Seated on the bench that surrounded the hexagonal message kiosk in the center of the Quad, the redhead was desperately trying to keep her focus on the complicated mathematics before her. The homework wasn't especially interesting or engaging – far from it, in fact – but it was a welcome distraction from the slitted golden eyes that stared at her from inside her skull.

The eyes weren't real, of course. According to the Professor, they were merely a representation of her addiction, brought forth when the cravings became particularly strong – her mind associating absence of nulls with fear and terror. Shutting her eyes, Jean took a deep breath, holding it for several seconds before releasing it, imagining the negative feelings leaving her body and dispersing harmlessly into the air. She didn't need a null, didn't need anything that brought about manufactured feelings of strength and confidence.

the nulls are natural. A small voice whispered inside her head. nothing manufactured about them... That had to be her subconscious talking. Jean's eyes snapped open, and she chewed worriedly on her lower lip. Please let that just be her subconscious talking – she didn't know if she could deal with schizophrenia on top of everything else.

"Can't you give me one little peek?"

Blinking, Jean glanced around the corner of the kiosk, surprised that she no longer had the Quad to herself. The voice on the other side belonged to a girl dressed in a simple white t-shirt and white jeans. On her head, bill facing backwards, was a white baseball cap bearing a New England Patriots logo, beneath which came a long river of platinum blonde.

It took Jean several seconds to recognize the girl as Emma Frost. The girl was nearly unrecognizable outside of her usual top-of-the-line designer attire. Standing across from her, his back to Jean, was Scott.

"I've been dying to know the colour of your eyes," Emma said, reaching for the sunglasses on his face. "I bet they're blue..."

Jean's eye twitched.

"Try beet-red," Scott replied, intercepting the girl's hand. Jean pursed her lips; slowing down her breathing, she took a slightly more covert position as she listened in. "I didn't get much sleep."

"I bet they're gorgeous regardless," Emma said huskily, pushing the boy up against the message kiosk. "Just one little glimpse? Please?"

"Emma, no," Scott protested, his voice becoming more frantic as Emma pushed up against him. Jean narrowed her eyes, not noticing as the left one began to twitch again; Scott's desperation was eerily reminiscent of how she remembered Ranma acting when she begged for a null. "Really, don't. Y-you know I have an eye condition-"

"He can't show you, Ms. Frost." Scott and Emma both looked up, the latter pulling away and glaring at the newcomer.

Jean groaned as she recognized the voice. "Nabiki..." The brunette cyberpath had managed to sneak up on all three of them, and for all intents and purposes was casually perusing the postings on the other side of the kiosk. Jean instinctively raised her mental shields.

"As you already know, Scott has a terrible eye condition," Nabiki continued, running a finger down the glass surface of the board. Her bookbag lay on the bench, beside it a small brown package labeled 'Frost Parcel Express'. "Simply terrible, in fact. Can't handle light too well, I'm afraid, especially not on a bright, sunny morning like this."

"Eavesdropping, Ms. Tendo?" Emma replied, meeting the other girl's smirk with one of her own; her eyes briefly drifted down to the package, then snapped their steely gaze back up to Nabiki. "I would have thought such an act beneath you."

"Who's eavesdropping?" Nabiki asked, her lips twitching into a smirk. "I'm just keeping myself up-to-date on the latest happenings of this fine educational establishment. Did you know gymnastics team tryouts start next month?"

"Fascinating," The other girl deadpanned. Turning back to Scott, Emma smiled and gently touched his arm. "I must run, but I'll see you later, 'kay?"

"Yeah," Scott replied, scratching nervously at the back of his head; Jean narrowed her eyes again, unconsciously leaning in closer.

"One of these days, though," Emma said over her shoulder, walking with a deliberate sway to her hips, "Eye condition or no... I want to learn all of your little secrets."

"That will be..." Scott replied, pausing to find the right word. Jean rolled her eyes and looked away, grabbing her Calculus book and burying her nose in it. "An interesting day."

"You can thank me for the save any time, cutie," Nabiki remarked, looking over at the boy with a half-lidded gaze. "She would have had your shades off in another second."

"She had a point about the eavesdropping."

"So I was," Nabiki retorted with a shrug. "I was listening in while standing out in the open for all to see." Jean froze, suddenly feeling the other telepath's eyes on her through the kiosk. "Unlike Ms. Grey over there, who's listening in and trying to stay hidden."

"What?" She heard Scott say, and jumped as she saw him poke his head around the corner. "Jean? How long have you been there?"

"I wasn't spying!" The redhead blurted out. "I mean, um, that is-"

"Spying?" Scott lifted an eyebrow. "Who said anything about spy-"

Jean flushed. "Nabiki was accusing me of it, but I wasn't."

"Sure you weren't," Jean shot a glare at the other girl. Nabiki just smiled back.

"You were spying, weren't you?" Scott laughed, his hand coming to rest on her shoulder. "Don't tell me you're jealous!"

"Jealous?" Jean shifted her glare to Scott, brushing his hand away and blowing an irritating strand of hair out of her eyes. "Yeah, right, I'm jealous." She rolled her eyes, grabbing her bookbag and turning her back on the smirking boy. "As if I'd be at all envious of the little harem you have around you..."

Hitching her bag over her shoulder, Jean marched out of the quad, the twitch returning to her eye. Goddammit, she needed a null.

"Well," Nabiki said as they watched the redhead depart. "That was fun."

"For you, maybe," Scott replied with a sigh. "I shouldn't have teased her like that."

"Probably not," She agreed, stepping away from the bench and strolling over to the boy's side. "But after what happened earlier this week, I think she deserved a little payback."

"Payback?" Scott repeated, grabbing her shoulders and turning her to face him. "Wait, you know about that?"

"Cutie, I'm willing to bet every telepath in the tri-county area knows about Princess' little power surge," Nabiki squeezed her eyes shut and leaned into Scott's arms, suppressing a shudder at the memory. "Her mental thrashings burst across the astral plane... it was like my mind was being bombarded with napalm..."

She shook her head, quickly collecting herself. "You're not a psychic, you wouldn't understand."

"It wasn't a picnic for her either, y'know," Scott said a little defensively, gently pushing her away. "I'm actually surprised your crew didn't try to take advantage of the situation."

"I'm hurt," Nabiki mock-pouted. "After all this time, after all we've been through, you still don't trust me."

"Considering the track record your team has..." Scott gave her a wry look."Can you blame me?"

"Not really," She smiled slyly, then leaned forward as she shot him a half-lidded gaze. "Enough about that. We have a date tomorrow night."

"Huh?" Scott blinked, then slapped himself in the forehead. "Oh, right, you tricked me into that at the carnival..."

"'Tricked' is an ugly word," The brunette smiled, tracing a finger lightly over Scott's chest. "I prefer the term 'skillfully maneuvered'..." She leaned in, pressing herself against him and smiling coyly. "Play your cards right, and you'll get to see the other ways I can 'skillfully maneuver'."

"Feeling a little more, uh, forward than usual?" Scott commented with a nervous chuckle. His eyes darted around and noticed, with some dismay, Kurt, Ranma and Rogue staring at them from the other end of the Quad – the latter with disinterest, the second with a moderate amount of sympathy, and the former laughing his ass off.

"Just upping the ante," Nabiki commented, stepping away as the morning bell rang, one finger lingering under his chin for what felt like an eternity.

Giving him a smile over her shoulder as she walked away, Nabiki glanced down at the small package under her arm and smirked. Ms. Frost had been looking rather plain today. "I wonder," She mused to herself, "How much is Ms. Frost willing to pay for her vanity?"

Setting down his bowl and letting out a satisfied sigh, Genma gave Kasumi a broad smile. "Fit for the gods, Kasumi-chan!"

"Why thank you, Uncle," She smiled back. The man was notoriously easy to please when it came to food, but Kasumi still appreciated the compliment – every chef enjoyed knowing her meal was a success with those who mattered most. "Would you like anything else?" She asked, her eyes drifting back down to the book in her lap – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which, she had discovered, had almost nothing to do with Zen Buddhist practices. It also wasn't very informative in regards to motorcycles.) "I made a dacquoise in class that we can have for dessert."

"Well, since you mention it..."

"Uncle can't have any more to eat, Kasumi," Her little sister interrupted, setting her bowl on the table and smiling sweetly at Genma. The smile didn't reach her eyes. "He promised to show me that new move tonight, remember?"

"We should wait, Akane-chan," Genma answered, chuckling nervously as the smile turned into a glare. "I mean, we just finished eating, and – I'm not going to win here, am I?"

"Not likely," Akane said, standing up and grabbing the man's collar. "I need all the training I can get, uncle," She continued, dragging his unresisting form out to the dojo. "I want to kick the self-satisfied smirk off that little punk's face..."

"Have fun," Soun called out over his shoulder, helping himself to another bowl of rice.

"Oh let me get that for you father," Kasumi offered, reaching for his bowl.

"Not necessary, daughter," The Tendo patriarch replied, shaking his head. "You do so much around here, the least I can do is serve myself."

"Alright..." She replied, looking at the man quizzically. He'd been saying that a lot lately, offering to take care of the laundry or wash the dishes. She was happy to see her father doing more around the home, but at the same time it felt slightly odd to have someone sharing the household chores.

Kasumi blinked and looked up from her book; now that she thought of it, when was the last time he'd cried? She couldn't remember the last time she'd come across a puddle of tears on the floor...

Stirred out of her thoughts by the doorbell, Kasumi rose to her feet and brushed the wrinkles out of her apron "Who could that be?" She asked aloud. It was rather late, and the unexpected guests had generally stopped coming over after Ranma had disappeared. Hoping this wasn't someone seeking the missing pigtailed boy – they were usually polite, but tended to make such a mess when they visited – Kasumi straightened her hair and went to answer the door.

Opening it up, Kasumi was surprised to see Reiko Watanabe and an incredibly handsome unknown gentlemen. "Oh my," She breathed, smiling brightly as shock quickly gave way to hospitality. "Professor Watanabe, what brings you here?"

"Tendo-san," Reiko replied, returning the smile. "I apologize for dropping in so late. This is my colleague-" she nodded to the man, who smiled in greeting, "-Dr. Jonah Ryan. We'd like to speak with you about a few things."

"Certainly," Kasumi replied, stepping aside. "Please, come in. We were just finishing dinner." She bit her lower lip and tilted her head to the side. "Does this have anything to do with what occurred in your office last week?"

"In part," Reiko nodded, not elaborating further; Kasumi hoped the woman wasn't still upset with her over that. It had been an honest mistake. Dr. Ryan whispered something to his companion, glancing between the two women in confusion. Reiko rolled her eyes and repeated what Kasumi had just said in English. "My friend doesn't speak Japanese," She explained, following Kasumi into the dining room.

Her father was in the midst of lighting a cigarette when they entered the room. "Father, this is Professor Reiko Watanabe," The woman gave Soun a short bow. "And Dr. Jonah Ryan." The man made an awkward attempt at the same, and Kasumi couldn't help but giggle at the sight.

"It's just 'Doctor' Watanabe, now," Reiko broke in. "I resigned my position at Tokyo U this afternoon. I put a good word in for Minoru to take my place."

"Welcome," Soun greeted, gesturing towards the empty seats at the table. "I am Soun Tendo, Kasumi's father. Please, make yourselves comfortable. What brings you to our home?"

"Thank you," Reiko replied after relaying the man's words to her colleague. Taking a seat at the other end of the table, Jonah following her lead and sitting at her right, she continued. "Dr. Ryan and I are here to speak with Kasumi, actually. It is in regards to something that occurred in my office last week."

"I see," Soun nodded, standing up and heading towards the kitchen. "In that case, Kasumi, please sit down. Would anyone like some tea?"

"There's a fresh pot on the stove, father," Kasumi said, a little overwhelmed at suddenly being the centre of attention. "Oh my, I'm sorry," She said, switching to English – much to the surprise of Dr. Ryan. "I didn't mean to cause any harm last week. It was an honest mistake."

"You speak English very well," Jonah remarked, flashing her a smile. Kasumi's cheeks coloured faintly in response. "Is your father fluent as well? I'd hate to leave him out of what's to come."

"I haven't spoken it since high school," She admitted with a faint blush, playing with her apron ties. "I didn't think I remembered any. Father doesn't speak it, but he understands the language very well."

"Your accent is negligible," Reiko broke in, shooting Jonah a dry look. "Anyway, Ms. Tendo, there is no need to apologize. You did nothing wrong."

"In fact," Her companion added. "We would like to thank you."

"Thank me?"

"Yes," Reiko nodded, smiling in gratitude as Soun arrived, pouring each of them a fresh cup of tea. "The items you happened upon in my office were sent to me earlier that day by Dr. Ryan, and were related to what is known as the Biogenetic Analysis System-"

"Or 'biobed'," Jonah interjected.

"-or the... ugh... biobed," Reiko nodded, wrinkling her nose in disgust. "A horrible name devised by a Star Trek obsessive, but it's managed to stick, despite the fact that it doesn't even look like a bed." She gave Kasumi a quizzical look. "Have you heard of the Carcinogenetic Diagnostic Scanner?"

"The CarDScan-DG1900v3?" Kasumi nodded, tilting her head as a diagram of the medical device formed in her mind. "A revolutionary full body-scanning apparatus designed for early-detection and diagnosis of cancer, as well as detailed internal imaging for surgery prep." She paused, adding. "It was featured in an article about two years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine."

"That's the one," Jonah nodded, filling a bowl with leftover rice. "I was quoted on page seven."

"I was quoted on pages three and eight," Reiko countered, grinning at the glare Jonah sent back at her as he silently chewed on a pickle. "To cut straight to the point, the blueprints you happened upon are a vastly upgraded version of the CarDScan, and is part of a much larger project currently known as the Medical Diagnostic Array."

"It wa' di'covered," Jonah said, swallowing a mouthful of rice in mid-sentence. "That the original biobed is capable of detecting more than it was intended to. Nearly from the beginning, doctors have been getting results from it that had more information than what it was intended to find."

Kasumi glanced over at her father; the man seemed completely lost.

"The CarDScan was delving into the patients very genetic structure," Reiko picked up the explanation. "Going far beyond what it was initially designed for. Locating hereditary genes that could indicate cancer and other diseases, almost to the point of prescience. It didn't give enough information, but it did give the original designers ideas."

"I apologize for interrupting," Kasumi broke in, her fingers still twisting nervously around her apron strings. "But why are you telling me this?"

"You fixed it," Jonah said simply. "We'd been having difficulty with aspects of the optics system, so I sent them to Reiko. Optics is one of her specialties."

"But before I could even take a look at them," Reiko broke in, a small frown flashing across her lips. "You... did what you did. You fixed every problem, and even improved upon it, and not just in regards to the optics. Not that you did anything I wouldn't have eventually done, but-"

"Basically," Jonah interrupted, chasing the last grain of rice around with his chopsticks. "We are beyond impressed by your work. What you did has solved problems across the board, from internal programming to the projected size and cost. We've finally managed to bring Reiko into the project proper after much cajoling, and after consulting with the other project heads in Cambridge, we would like to extend the invitation to you."

Kasumi blinked. "Could..." She swallowed, a small lump in her throat, "Could you please repeat that?

"We would like to offer you, Ms. Tendo," Reiko said with a click of her tongue. "A research and development position, creating the next generation of medical technology in Massachusetts."

"Oh my," Kasumi breathed, raising a hand to her cheek. She suddenly felt very light-headed. "That... that is what I thought you said..."

"Kitty Pryde, I am amazed."

"Yeah," Kitty said, nervously looking up at the woman standing over her shoulder. "I, uh-"

"I mean, I am truly astounded," The teacher continued. "Most people can't program such complicated game protocols without crashing their computer. You, on the other hand," The woman gestured to the three smoking machines sitting in front of the girl. "Have managed to crash three."

Kitty flushed a bright red as the other students laughed at Ms. Cregg's comment. "I'm just an overachiever like that, I guess," She grinned weakly. "I can do better, I just, y'know, didn't get enough sleep last night."

"I know you can do better, Ms. Pryde," The teacher responded, adjusting her glasses. "You're one of the best in the class. But why don't you spend the rest of the period-"

"C'mon! Go for it!"

"Heh, this is nothin'!"

"Ooo, look out!"

"-writing up..." Ms. Cregg trailed off at the voices coming from the other side of the room. Kitty, relieved to be out of the spotlight, watched as the teacher sighed and approached the two students. Curious, and eager to get away from programming for a few minutes, she slid her chair closer and saw Risty leaning over the shoulder of a scrawny boy with red hair in a bowl cut and glasses with very large frames. The latter was sitting at a computer, fingers flashing across the keyboard as he ignored his assignment in favour of playing Rampage III: Killborg Revolution.

"Look out!" Risty exclaimed in a whisper that carried across the room. "It's gonna infect you wi-"

"Please," The boy arrogantly interrupted. "They don't call me 'Arcade' for nothing. That guy was dead the moment he was programmed."

Of course, knowing Webber Torque, he'd probably already finished the project as well as the next one. Kitty found herself unable to be jealous of the boy's programming skill –he seemed to have traded his grasp on reality in exchange.

Risty lurched back as Ms. Cregg stepped next to the machine, folding her arms over her chest and staring at the red haired boy with a disdainful expression. 'Arcade' apparently didn't notice, involved as he was in destroying horde after horde of flesh-eating robots with a rocket-propelled crowbar-gun.

"Uh-oh," Risty stage-whispered, tapping 'Arcade' on the shoulder. "You better sign off, Webber..."

"Wait, wait!" Webber insisted, grinning at the screen with malicious glee. "I'm about to put this box into overdrive!" A purple-sleeved arm intruded upon his view. "No!" He cried out as a finger struck the power button. "What'd you go and do that for?"

Kitty giggled as Ms. Cregg removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Mr. Torque," She sighed. "I think we've crashed enough computers for one day..."

The bell thankfully rang at that point, and Kitty giggled again at the look of the relief that came across the teachers face – relief that was equally felt by the brown-haired girl.

"Hey Kitty!" She heard Risty call out to her as soon as she entered the hallway. Slowing down so the British girl could catch up, Kitty smiled in greeting. She didn't know Rogue's friend too well, but Risty seemed nice enough.

"What's up?' She asked as Risty fell into step beside her.

"You know of anything fun going on this weekend?"

"Nothing," Kitty shook her head. "I've had my ear to the ground all week, but Duncan's was the only party anyone's been saying anything about."

"That was days ago!" Risty whined. "Someone has to have planned another one by now!"

"At least you got to go to one this week," Kitty grumbled. Stupid Duncan and his 'juniors and seniors only'...

"I wouldn't be envious," The Brit replied, holding her nose. "It was a Duncan Matthews party. If it weren't for the fight, it wouldn't have been worth remembering."

"Apparently, not everyone thinks so," She smirked ruefully. "No one else wants to try showing him up. The party circuit is completely dry."

"You know..." Risty said, a contemplative look coming over her face. Kitty raised an eyebrow and nodded for her to continue. "If we knew someone who's parents were gone for the night..." She grinned, walking ahead of the other girl and pushing a pair of doors open, hopping down the short stairway on the other side. "Well, we could throw our own little bash. "

"Hey..." Kitty grinned back, an idea sparking to life inside her mind. "You know something..."

It had been taunting him all morning – hell, all damn week, - staring him in the face with it's emptiness. Ranma glowered back at the canvas, unwilling to let some inanimate object get away with making him feel like an idiot.

After an entire week spent studying the pieces in the gallery and observing the other students in his class, the pigtailed mutant was still no closer to figuring out how they infused their work with ki. None of them seemed to know they were even doing it, but Ranma could feel it; focusing his senses, he could feel the small trickles of emotional energy. The girl with the nose ring, emanating fear; the boy in the corner, radiating lust; Melinda, on the other side of the room, running the entire spectrum from anger to ecstasy.

His sixth sense prickled in the back of his mind; the blonde girl was looking over at him again, anger spiked with fear and happiness rising as she did. Ranma glanced over at her briefly, and she stared back at him. Averting his gaze, he forced himself to focus on the canvas again.

How did they do it? He could see the scene he was supposed to paint, set up in the middle of the room – an arrangement of action figures raiding a dollhouse filled with anatomically impossible Barbies – but when he tried to bring the brush to the canvas, he drew a complete blank. Ranma realized he could mimic the motions of those around him, but past efforts had proven that doing so wouldn't be enough. He didn't even really care about the painting aspect, but it seemed the only way to learn how to do what the others in the class did.

Looking up again, Ranma saw Dante glancing between his watch and the clock. The period was nearly over, and he had nothing to show for it once again.

"Well," Dante said, pausing as the bell rang, signaling the end of second period. "That's all folks. Get outta my sight, I'm sick of every last one of ya. See ya next week."

Sighing again, Ranma stowed his gear and grabbed his bag, all the while wondering how he was supposed to do an independent project when he didn't even know how to paint. Next up was an hour of Advanced Sculpture, which would likely come to the same outcome as Advanced Painting. Exiting the room, he nodded to Dante as the older man fell into step beside him.

"Still no luck?" The teacher asked. "I've already given you two inspirational speeches. Do I need to break out the hand puppets for a third?"

"Break out the hand puppets and I break your hands."

"Awww..." Dante pouted briefly, apparently quite disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm towards amateur puppetry.

"Ain't nothin' to worry about," Ranma lied, stopping outside the Sculpture room. "I'll figure it out."

"You can ask for help if you need it," Dante offered, leaning against the wall next to a small display case. "From me, from Lorelei when she gets back, from Melinda if you want. Trust me Ranma, every artist has gone through exactly this – you understand the mechanics, and you understand the mentality." He gave Ranma a pointed look, stepping away from the wall and heading into the Sculpture studio. "What you have yet to figure out is how to combine the two."

"He is right, you know," Melinda said, stepping to his side. "You can ask me for as much help as you need, and more."

"Don't worry 'bout it," Ranma said with a dismissive shrug.

"I think I have plenty to worry about," She shot back, grabbing him by the arm. "Why have you been avoiding me?"

"I ain't been avoidin' ya," Ranma said, tugging his arm out of her grasp as the bell rang. Watching Ranma enter the room, Melinda pursed her lips, her eyes narrowing as she stared at his pigtail. No doubt about it, he was definitely, purposely ignoring her – not only that, he was lying about it to her face. But why?

Gripping her braid tightly, a low growl rose in her throat. "I will get to the bottom of this," She muttered softly. "No one ignores Melinda Frost."

Nabiki lifted an eyebrow as her locker slammed shut in her face. Glancing to the side, she smirked. "Ms. Frost."

"Ms. Tendo."

"You look so..." Nabiki paused, tapping a finger against her Statistics book as she made an obvious show of trying to find the right word. Behind her a brown-haired boy Emma didn't know shared a glance with a white-haired one. "Common."

"You would be the one to know," She retorted, crossing her arms and glowering down at the shorter girl.

"Problem Nabs?" One of the boys said, stepping up to flanking positions behind her.

"Just having a chat with Ms. Frost, Lance," Nabiki replied, her eyes not moving from Emma. "Nothing to be concerned with."

"Make yourselves scarce," The blonde ordered the two boys. "This is a private conversation."

The boys bristled but Nabiki simply nodded. "Go on to class, boys," She said sweetly, "Ms. Frost is correct, we do have things to discuss. I'll meet back up with you later at the place."

Lance shared a glance with the boy Emma didn't know, but did as requested. Emma and Nabiki stared at each other silently, the halls slowly clearing around them as students rushed to class. Soon the two girls were alone, save for the presence of a short, scrawny boy sitting in a hunched position at the end of the hall, far enough out of earshot to satisfy her.

"Classes are starting, Ms. Frost," Nabiki finally said, tapping her fingers against the cover of her book. "If you have something to say-"

"Where did you get it?" Emma snapped, taking a challenging step forward.

"I suppose you are referring to the package that was mistakenly delivered to my home?" Nabiki asked rhetorically, shifting her backpack around and unzipping it.

"Of course I am," Emma made a mental note to find the name of the courier. The fool shouldn't be handling family shipping.

"This item right here?" The other girl smirked, showing the contents of her bag to Emma. The blonde's hands reached for the bag only to grasp nothing but air as Nabiki snatched it back. "Afraid I haven't seen it," She said sweetly.

"Stop playing games, Ms. Tendo," Emma said icily. "I want that package."

"I assure you, Ms. Frost," The Tendo girl answered. "That I am playing no game. I simply am not satisfied that you are the Emmalynne Grace Ophelia Frost the delivery is intended for. I need some further proof that this belongs to you." She grinned mischievously. "Perhaps if you told me what was inside?"

Emma narrowed her eyes; that girl damn well knew what was inside. "Opening another person's mail is a federal offense."

"Punishable by a two-thousand dollar fine or no more than five years in prison," Nabiki recited after a moment, a small frown briefly flashing across her face. "Assuming, of course, that the item in question had been sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Since it wasn't, however, the idea if punishment is rather hit or miss, is it not?"

"I would hate for you to have to find out for certain."

"I would hate to see you without that stylish cap."

"As you plainly demonstrate," Emma said, gesturing towards the other girl's simple ensemble - tight blue jeans and a black t-shirt with a white 'standby' symbol across the chest - with a derogatory wave, "One cannot always adhere to the latest fashions. Mr. Summers told me that I manage to pull off this ensemble quite successfully."

"Some boys are too nice to say what they really think."

"Must you constantly tout your experience?"

The bell rang, and both girls glared frozen daggers at each other for several seconds. "This has been most productive, Ms. Frost," Nabiki finally said, hitching her bag over her shoulder. "But I must be going."

"Yes, Bitchery 101 is very harsh on tardiness I hear," Emma replied, walking past the girl. "You wouldn't want to be late."

"Now who's touting their experience?" Nabiki replied frostily, heading off in the other direction. Emma resisted the desire to fire off a parting jab, but just barely. Looking down at her clenched fist as she walk, she narrowed her eyes upon seeing that her nails had nearly broken the skin of her palm.

She hated being forced into a draw.

"That was a good move, blondcakes," The scrawny boy said as she approached. He was now perched atop a dark green trash can, and Emma had to fight off a gag when he flashed her a grin of yellowed parchment. "Keepin' it to words is smart. I'd hated to have bruised up that pretty face of yours if things had gotten nastier with the boss-lady."

Emma glared at the disgusting boy without breaking her gait, who responded again with his vile grin. No other words were exchanged as she left him behind, although she could hear him chuckling behind her back. It didn't matter – she didn't debase herself by dealing with flunkies.

Ms. Tendo had her package, and she knew what was in it. This was no longer about protecting her reputation.

"...and thus, in the year 1066, Harold Godwinson was crowned king." The teacher paused, stepping away from the blackboard and looking over the students. Risty Wilde rolled her eyes; he was going to ask a question now, and who would he pick to answer it?

"Ms. Wilde," he continued. "Can you tell us who the other claimants to the throne were?"

"Probably not," Risty answered without a second thought. Keyes was using the royal 'we' again – didn't he know how big of an arse he sounded? "I know who the current Queen is, does that help?"

"We are rather surprised, Ms. Wilde," Mr. Keyes replied, a little more crossly than the British girl liked. "This is the history of your native country."

"Imagine the irony I must feel," She yawned, slouching in her seat. The teacher frowned at her, and she smiled back pleasantly. European History was so boring.

"Anyone else?" He asked. Several hands shot up, and Risty went back to ignoring the class, her mind drifting immediately to the next phase of her plan.

Things were proceeding nicely with both plans, but the hard part for each had yet to come. Gaining the trust of Ranma had been relatively easy, especially after the fight at Duncan Matthew's party. Nothing brought a pair of martial artists together like some friendly violence, and it had the added benefit of establishing herself as a serious fighter in the boy's mind.

And who else but a serious fighter would have a scroll containing incredibly powerful secret techniques?

The difficult part was in opening the scroll. Ranma was the only one who could do that, but simply asking him to open it would raise questions. Why she had a scroll that only he could open being the most prevalent, not to mention his reaction if he recognized his father's handwriting. She knew for a fact that she couldn't tell him the truth.

Risty's hand drifted to her side, feeling the pocket the scroll was kept in. A credible backstory might suffice, as long as-


She felt along the outside of the pocket. Something was wrong.

She patted the pocket.

It felt empty.

Panic rising, she shoved a hand into the pocket and grasped at nothing.

It was empty.

"No..." Risty whispered, an icy chill running up her spine. It was gone! Her desk crashed into the wall as she bolted from her seat, instantly bringing the room to a standstill. "NO!"

"Ms. Wilde!" Mr. Keyes bellowed, dropping his chalk in surprise. "What is the meaning of this ou-"

"GONNA HURL!" She shouted the first thing that came to her mind. Holding a hand over her mouth and bulging her cheeks, she raced down the wide path that quickly formed and out the door.

Dropping the facade as soon as she was out of sight, the British girl frantically checked her other pockets, quickly coming to the conclusion that the scroll wasn't anywhere on her person. When had she lost it? Where could she have left it? Bloody hell, why hadn't she been more careful? Of all the days...

Her gym locker! It had to be there, in her spare pants! Skidding into the nearest stairway, Risty cleared the first flight down in a single jump.

Ranma glared at the lump of clay. He poked it with his finger. At least now he'd managed to do something this time, unlike with the canvas. Ranma 1, Stupid Clay 0.

"MRS. LECOUVREUR," The sudden crackling of the intercom was a welcome distraction.

"She still ain't back yet," Dante muttered, glaring disdainfully at the wall-mounted speaker.

The message continued, unaware of the substitute Sculpture teacher's interjection. "WOULD YOU PLEASE SEND RANMA SAOTOME TO PRINCIPAL KELLY'S OFFICE RIGHT AWAY. THANK YOU."

"Aye-aye," Ranma popped out of his seat, giving the wall-mounted speaker a quick salute. Glancing over at Dante, the tall man nodded and shooed him away, quickly returning his attention to another student.

"Bloody hell," Risty growled, slamming her gym locker shut; clenching her fist, she slammed it into the door, noticeably denting the metal. The property damage did little to alleviate her anger.

Snapping her fingers, Risty dashed out the door and back into the main school building.

"And that brings us to the end of the grievances, Ms. Gabler," Principal Kelly said, closing the folder before him and looking up at the Asian-American girl with severely-short navy-blue hair slouched in the chair across from him. "Do you have anything to add?"

"Yeah," The girl said, her dark brown eyes casting a disdainful look in his direction. "Screw the grievances. I quit."

"I'm sorry?" Kelly blinked, stopping halfway as he rose from his seat. The blue-haired girl sneered at him, crossing her toned arms across her chest.

"You heard me, sir," She made the honorific sound like a taunt. "I quit. Screw the basketball team, I don't need that sh-crap."

"I see," Frowning, Kelly nodded, sliding the folder into his open desk drawer. Why did so many students feel they needed to be confrontational with him? Natural teenage inclination to oppose authority in all forms, perhaps? "That is your right. Return your uniform and equipment to the head coach by the end of the day."

"What?" The girl said, springing to her feet in surprise. "You're just gonna let me effin' walk?"

"I said it's your choice," Kelly replied evenly, walking past the tall girl on his way to the door. "I have no issues with you deciding to quit playing on the team, Ms. Gabler. It won't dismiss the harassment allegations against you, but your team mates may drop them-"

"You can't be serious!" She cried, staring at him incredulously. "I was all-state last year! I led the district in rebounds, I-"

"Principal Kelly," Dorothy's voice came over the intercom. "Ranma- heehee- Ranma Saotome is here to see you."

"Thank you Dorothy," Kelly said, opening the door and glancing outside. Ranma was leaning up against Dorothy's desk, balancing a stapler and two coffee cups on his nose. The secretary was watching, hiding a giggle behind a raised hand; Kelly lifted an eyebrow upon seeing her wedding band not at it's usual place on her ring finger. "Ms. Gabler, if you wish to reconsider, then please address the grievances seriously and make an appointment to see me again next week." He gestured towards the open door, and the short-haired girl grumbled angrily under her breath as she stepped out. She stopped for a moment to give Ranma scathing glare before storming out of the administrative hub, slamming the door behind her.

"Did you do something to get on Ms. Gabler's bad side?" Kelly asked, leading the pigtailed boy into his office.


"The very tall girl that just left," Kelly answered, rifling through the folders on his desk. "She gave you the evilest eye I've ever seen on her way out."

"Never met her," Ranma gave a disinterested shrug. "Ya wanted t'see me? I ain't in trouble am I?"

"If you are, no one's told me," The principal replied with a chuckle. He blinked several times as a blurry image of an object crashing into the middle of a soccer game flashed through his mind. "I just thought you might like to know," He continued, shaking the strange picture out of his head, "I have made some discoveries in regards to the mystery that is your class schedule."

"If this is 'bout the art classes," Ranma said, taking a seat in one of the chairs across from the desk, "Ain't no need t'get it fixed. I decided to stick with 'em."

"Really?" Kelly lifted an eyebrow in genuine surprise. "Two weeks ago you seemed quite desperate to have them fixed. Have you managed to develop an interest in the fine arts in so short a time?"

"Kinda," Ranma said, and Kelly could sense a note of evasiveness in his tone. He clearly didn't want to give the actual reason behind his decision, but Kelly was willing to bet it had to do with the only real reason teenage boys did anything – there was a girl. He himself had taken three years of Spanish classes for that exact reason.

"Well, whatever your motivations," The older man said, giving the student a sly wink which was returned with an uncomprehending blink. "I'm pleased to hear things have worked out."

"Not like I really got a choice..."

"Well, you do have a choice," Kelly said slowly. "However, in your case, the choice would mean summer school. Without these three courses, you don't have the credits to graduate."

Ranma blinked. "I couldn't just transfer to another class?"

"There is not a single class at Bayville High you would be able to transfer into," Kelly shook his head, turning the contents of the folder around to show the pigtailed boy. "See, it's rather interesting. This is a list of classes your have already taken or attended the equivalent of in Japan," he explained, pointing to a list that ran along the side of the paper. "You can't take any of these again. Over here-" he pointed to the second sheet, "-are the classes that you either do not meet the prerequisites for or are too full to accept any more students.

"And these," he continued, pulling two more sheets of paper out from under the first two. "Are the classes that have 'kindly requested' that you not be allowed to attend."

"What?" Ranma exclaimed, taking the list from the man and looking them over. "Okay, I can understand some of these, but why is Weight Training and Conditioning on the list?"

"It's taught by Coach Seaborn," Kelly said, sitting back in his chair with a wry chuckle. "The one you beat in an arm-wrestling match and called a pathetic weakling last year."

"Food Studies?"

"First time I've ever heard of someone being overqualified for a high school class."

"Every single lab science course?"

"The chemistry lab fire really shook them up. Mr. Saotome," He cut off the next question, taking the papers back from the boy and returning them to the folder. "None of this is important anymore, is it? You've decided to continue with the classes, and I think that is a fine idea."

"I still wanna know how I got in 'em."

"As do I," Kelly nodded, glancing down at a copy of Ranma's schedule. "And how you appear to have the prerequisites for the advanced art classes in your transcripts despite never having taken them."

"Ya think someone set this up?"

"It's a possibility," He agreed. "The question, though, is why? It's likely nothing sinister, but I'd like to get to the bottom of this," He smiled at the boy and stood up. "If for no other reason than I love a good mystery."

"Yeah," The pigtailed boy nodded, smoothly rising from his seat. "Lemme know if ya find anythin'."

"Don't worry," Principal Kelly told him, walking him out the door. "Head on back to class now, and I'll let you know the moment I find anything out."

Closing the door behind Ranma, Kelly stared at the pattern of the wood grains on the bookcase for several seconds. "Yes..." He said softly to himself, another blurry and dreamlike scene of inhuman violence flitting on the edges of his memory. He removed a heavy metal ball from the high shelf, thinking back to the frighting instance earlier that week when it crashed through his window and into his desk. "I do enjoy a good mystery..."

Shutting her locker, Risty slammed her head against it. Spinning around, she sank to the floor in frustration, racking her brain to think of any other place she could have lost it.

"Alright," She whispered to herself, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes. "Panic is not going to help you here, girl." She inhaled several more times, her heart rate gradually slowing and her calm soon re-established. "Think! When was the last time you know you had it..."

Moments later Risty was on her feet and speeding through the halls.

Stifling a yawn as he slid down the railing to the ground floor, Ranma found himself unable to truly care about his schedule anymore. While he still found the concept of art almost completely foreign, he could not deny they had taken an interesting turn. Admittedly, it was more in regards to the strange use of ki he'd witnessed than any kind of actual interest in the main subject matter of the class, but it was something, right?

He did wonder how the mishap had happened, and he was really curious who had engineered it. The addition of classes he'd never taken made the entire situation far stranger, and definitely pointed to an external influence.. There were far too many factors thus far revealed to think it was still a simple scheduling mistake or clerical error.

Touching down on the ground floor, Ranma paused. To the right were the doors that led outside to the Quad, and to the left led a long, boring trek through numerous halls that would just take him to the other end of the Quad, where the stairs down into the art department were.

"Gee Ranma," he said sarcastically. "Wonder which way you should go."

Cutting through the Quad, Ranma stopped for a moment by the lunch tables to bask in the sunlight. It was definitely too nice a day to be inside; the temptation to skip out and roofhop through the town was very strong.

"Stupid responsibilities," He muttered to himself. He'd get his ass chewed out by a dozen people if he did that.

Stretching his arms out behind his head, Ranma yawned again as he resumed his leisurely stroll. He made it about three feet before he felt a sudden prickle at the back of his neck.

Slipping into a subtle defensive position, Ranma checked his peripherals and found nothing to either side of him. Spreading his senses, the pigtailed mutant slowed his breathing and focused his ears, but heard nothing that could be attributed to an attacker lying in wait. His ki detected no one in the immediate vicinity; focusing it tighter, he made a wide sweep of the surrounding area.

"Weird," He said after several minutes. The feeling was still there, but he couldn't find anything that could be the source. Keeping his ki spread, Ranma took another step, then spun ninety degrees to the left when he felt an almost imperceptible tug. It was coming from the bushes...

Crouching low to the ground, Ranma pushed through the landscaping, following the increasing tug like a game of Marco Polo. Small thorns and twigs dug into his skin, and he was pretty certain that a dog had pooped in the spot he'd just stepped into. He ignored all of this, the sense getting stronger by the second. Pushing aside a patch of thick growth near the building, Ranma blinked.

Lying on the ground was a battered off-white cylinder, the ends covered with tarnished bronze caps. Gently reaching out and lifting it up, Ranma stood up, shaking the twigs and leaves out of his hair. Exiting the bushes – with a brief stop to wipe the dog doo off his foot and on to the bench Duncan Matthews liked to sit at – he studied the case a little closer; he had seen its like before, at the odd temples and shrines his father had dragged him to in search of new and exotic training. Elaborately painted and carved works of art, made of the finest polished wood and gilded metal, often times worth many times more than their meagre contents.

This looked nothing like them.

"Feh," He snorted, eying the scratches and dents in the hard plastic. If it had ever been painted, the design had long since faded. "Cheap scroll case still has the gift shop barcode on it." Looking over the end cap, he snorted again. "'Made in America'. Figures."

Piece of junk though it may be to look at, it was a blazing inferno to his senses. Engaging his ki-vision, Ranma looked at the scroll case again; it still looked like something from the ten-cent bin at a suburban garage sale, but now he could see an intricate weaving of green and red ki surrounding the contents. Dozens of spiraling blue threads connected the cocoon of energy to the end-caps; if even one was pulled, the entire weaving would collapse in on itself, taking whatever was inside with it. The entire trap was anchored on a knot of concentrated pure ki, woven tighter than he had ever thought possible and nearly blinding him with it's radiance.

His eyes beginning to strain, Ranma blinked repeatedly, dispelling the ki from his sight. "Woah." Despite it's looks, someone had gone to great lengths to protect what was inside. The tight intricacy was beyond his ability to manipulate, overshadowing even the delicate weavings he'd witnessed in the gallery. He had seen similar traps before, and had actually set one off at a monastery several years ago. He and pop hadn't stayed in Brazil much longer.

Running a careful finger along the edge of one of the caps, Ranma cursed as he felt a sudden shock run through his skin. "Stupid scroll!" He growled, the scroll case slipping out of his hands. Ranma winced as it acquired another dent bounding off the corner of a table, then again as it clattered against the pavement, one of the end-caps popping off with the sound of a muffled gunshot. "Oops."

His eyes darting around to see if anyone had witnessed the event, Ranma scooped up the now open case and hesitantly peered inside. Seeing a rolled up parchment, completely undamaged, he grinned triumphantly. He didn't know what he'd done, but he'd apparently done it right. Pity he didn't have the chance now to study the delicate weaving of ki the trap had been made of...


Ranma let out a shout as he felt an impact against his lower back; twisting into the fall, Ranma landed on his backside, blinking in confusion as he saw Risty perched on his stomach, grinning insanely. "You found it!"

"Huh?" Ranma groaned, looking over at the object in his hand. "Ris? This yours?"

"Yes, its-" Risty followed his gaze and froze, drawing a sharp intake of breath as she took sight of the opened scroll case. "-mine. It's open. You opened it," She said slowly, her bugging eyes betraying her placid tone.

"Yeah, sorry 'bout th-"

"YOU GOT IT OPEN!" She squealed, wrapping her arms around his neck and squeezing him tightly, peppering his face with dozens of kisses as he struggled to breathe. "I can't believe it! You fanFUCKINGtastic boy, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THAN-"

"....and and and we can have slumber parties!" Thaliá squealed happily, bouncing down the hallway. "Can we have slumber parties, Mr. Harrison? Please please pretty please?"

"Dunno," The tall man smiled down at the girl. Behind the two walked a stoic pair of large orderlies; they had boring songs, so Thaliá hadn't bothered to learn their names. "Better ask Wanda first, and the Doc'll have his say."

"We can play games and tell stories and sing our favourite songs!" Thaliá chirped excitedly, barely able to contain herself as Mr. Harrison led her to the first joint therapy session. She'd been waiting for this for what felt like forever. She just knew she and Wanda would become great friends!

Reaching the door at the end of the hall, Thaliá bounced on her toes as she waited impatiently for Mr. Harrison to swipe his card-thingy. Giggling at the beeps and blinking lights that accompanied the doors opening, she was about to rush inside when Mr. Harrison held an arm in her path.

"Calm down, child," He said, his smile slipping from his face. "Wanda is already inside, and ya don't wanna scare her, do ya?

Thaliá's hair whipped about as she shook her head. She hated scaring people. Scared people had scary songs.

"Alright then," Mr. Harrison said, pushing the door open and gently guiding her inside. Thaliá looked around the small room with wide eyes; this was different from the usual session rooms. The walls were painted a light sky blue, and the floors covered with a soft brown carpet. A white couch ran along the far wall, a small wooden table with the edges sanded down directly in front of it, and to the right a large blue armchair, all bolted to the floor.

Wanda sat on one end of the couch, staring at the floor, wearing a straitjacket much less intricate than her own. Her song was angry. Thaliá was about to bounce forward when she realized Mr. Harrison was speaking to the other girl.

"Two guards will be posted outside," He said, his voice carrying an edge Thaliá had never heard before. "Anything happens, they'll be in here before you can spit."

Wanda said nothing.

"Dr. Lieber will arrive shortly," The man continued. "Play nicely until then." Mr. Harrison glanced over at Thaliá, giving her a small smile and a nod before stepping outside. The door shut loudly behind him, and she could hear the happy clicks of multiple locks.

Dragging a toe along the carpet, Thaliá was suddenly at a loss for what to say. Despite their rooms being so close together, she and Wanda had never really met before right now; it was very rude of Mr. Harrison not to have formally introduced them before he left. Tentatively, she shuffled over to the couch, sitting down next to the other girl. Several seconds passed, but Wanda didn't move to acknowledge her.

Wiggling her nose, Thaliá carefully brushed it against her shoulder in an attempt to scratch it, her mind racing to find something to talk about. Her foot started tapping a light beat against the carpet, unknowingly attracting Wanda's attention. A low hum rumbled in her throat, her head bouncing lightly to the rhythm.

Wanda was looking at her now, an unreadable expression on her face; she seemed less angry, although the Latina could still hear the rage in her song. "Never was a cornflake girl..."

"Don't sing."

"Hi!" She greeted the other girl, her toe still tapping the beat to Tori Amos' Cornflake Girl against the floor. "My name is Thaliá! Do you wanna be friends?"

"I know who you are." Wanda answered in a clipped monotone.

"But never have we held a joint intro." Thaliá giggled and swung her legs onto the crouch, crossing them as she turned to the other girl. "Can you believe that? We've resided in the same hall for so many years and we never ever got to speak! Isn't that weird? I love your top!"

"It's a straitjacket."

"It resonates with you." She paused, considering for a moment. "Burgundy would be a more pleasing tone though."

Wanda growled. The tempo of her song sped up.

"I can stick my tongue up my nose!"

Plopping herself down next to Rogue, Risty yanked Ranma over from the other side of the table, planting an enthusiastic kiss on each cheek. "THANK YOU!"

"Hey to you too, Risty," Rogue said dryly, glancing between the two martial artists. "Ya ain't tryin' t'steal mah guy right in front of me, are ya?"

"Rogue, this amazing boy is yours," Risty told her, grinning exuberantly as she released the startled boy from her grasp. Said boy now had a large indigo imprint of her lips on each cheek and a startled expression on his face. Risty decided against taking the opportunity to steal the rest of his sandwich. "Note that I only pecked him on the cheeks instead of trying to figure out the actual texture of his tonsils. That would be too weird, and is a task I leave in your capable hands."

"Thanks," Rogue deadpanned, giving Risty a questioning look as she reached across the table and cleaned the lipstick off her boyfriend's cheeks. "Mind if Ah ask the reasons behind this spell of Ranma-worship?"

"Don't need a reason t'realize I'm awesome," Ranma interjected.

"This is why," She looked covertly to both sides, then pulled the scroll case out of her pocket and set it down in the middle of the table. "I lost this a while back, when Kurt and Kitty accidentally knocked me down, and was going out of my mind trying to find it. Ranma stumbled upon it over there," Risty gestured vaguely towards the other side of the Quad. "And not only did he find it, he actually managed to get the ruddy thing open!"

"Alright," Rogue nodded, eyeing the tube with half-hearted interest. "And what is that?"

"S'a scwoll ca'e," Ranma answered, swallowing the last of his sandwich as he stared at the object in question. "It wasn't that hard t'open."

"My father spent almost twenty years trying to get this open," Risty lied, looking Ranma dead in the eye and tapping the case against his head. "He tried hammers, crowbars, hacksaws, blowtorches. He tried pulling it off, melting the ends, smashing it open – hell, he even tried to have it x-rayed to see what was inside. Nothing worked."

"It was a ki-lock," Ranma muttered impatiently. "Someone trapped that thing good. Have ya seen what's inside yet?"

"Right," Risty nodded, smirking at the boy. "That's why pop gave it to me before I left. He never could use ki, and so he thought that I might have some kind of a shot. Unfo-"

"Rist, the thing is open," Ranma cut in, yanking the item out of her hands. "Ya ran off with it when the bell rang. Are ya gonna keep talkin' or are ya gonna let me see what's inside the stupid thing?"

"Must you be so bloody impatient?" She teased, stealing the case back from the boy. "I was just trying to give Rogue a little backstory."

"Backstory is kinda borin'," Rogue said, leaning her head into her hand as she sipped at a can of ersatz grape soda. "What's in th'ugly thing?"

"Well forgive me for having a sense of showmanship," The British girl muttered, slightly peeved that no one seemed to care about her painstakingly-crafted reason for having it in the first place. That boy should be more curious about the origins of strange and exotic combat techniques. With a sigh, Risty slid a finger inside the case and pulling out the rolled-up yellow parchment contained within. Carefully unfurling it a few inches, Risty's eyes widened. "Oh, wow!"

"What is it?" Ranma asked eagerly, anticipation dancing across his face.

"This..." Risty gulped, her eyes racing all over the page.



"Yeah?" Ranma asked again, his patience obviously wearing thin now, "What is it?!"

"This... is in Japanese." She looked back up, bewildered. "I can't read it."

THUNK! The two girls giggled as Ranma's head smacked loudly against the table. "Here," She continued, clearing off the center of the table and unrolling the scroll between them. "You opened it, you have as much right to know what's on the bloody thing as I do."

"I suppose my happenin' t'be Japanese contributes to this?"

"You're Japanese?" Risty blinked, holding back a grin. "I could have sworn you were British. Will you read the stupid thing already?"

Sitting back as Ranma read over the scroll, Risty smiled to herself. She'd already memorized what it had to say, but Ranma did deserve to see it for himself; they were his father's techniques after all. Besides, he might pick up something she missed - her Japanese literacy was a bit rusty.

"Umisenken?" Ranma muttered. "Yknow, this handwritin' looks kinda familiar..."

"So what's it say?" Risty asked quickly. "Anything interesting?"

"Interestin' don't even begin t'describe it," Ranma breathed, looking up at her with an eager grin. "It's an entire system of martial arts I ain't ever seen before. Basis seems t'be on stealth..." His eyes widened, and he pointed to a section around the bottom of the parchment. "It's got an actual invisibility technique!"

"Wicked!" Risty grinned in response.

"Silencin' techniques," Ranma continued slowly, his eyes flying down the scroll. "Disabling attacks, power moves... some of 'em seem to be counters for the techniques of another system. And this..." He frowned, pointing to the very end of the scroll. "Is the defense against somethin' called 'Baribari Taremaku Yakekoge Jitsuzai Yakedo'..."

Risty and Rogue shared a glance. "And that is...?" The southern girl asked.

"Literally translated? Tearing Curtain Scorching Reality Burn." The pigtailed boy met Risty's gaze, and they grinned in tandem. "Cool."

"This is all really interestin'," Rogue broke in, "But what does it all mean?"

"It means Rist has a scroll of secret techniques," Ranma told her, sighing as he rolled the parchment back up and handed it to the British girl. "That are gonna be freakin' crazy to learn."

"Wrong," Risty said, slipping the scroll back into it's case and sliding it into her pocket. "It means WE have this scroll of secret techniques that are going to be freaking crazy to learn."


"You opened it," Risty grinned. "Are you saying you don't want to learn it?"

"Well," Melinda said, looking up from her sketchbook as Emma finished her story, "That is quite a predicament you have gotten yourself into."

"I haven't gotten myself into anything," Her cousin replied, tucking a strand of loose hair behind her ear. "Unless you are saying that it's somehow my fault that the parcel was delivered to the wrong address."

"The wrongest of addresses," Melinda commented, tapping her pencil against the page. In truth, she'd only half-listened to her cousin's tirade, having gotten the gist of it after the first three sentences. Her mind was occupied more with a pigtailed boy and his decidedly unRanma-like tendencies of late. "No, that is not your fault, but how you have handled the information received since is."

"And what would you have suggested?"

"Honestly?" Melinda closed her sketchbook and set it down on the grass beside her. Maybe he was upset about being a girl when she kissed her? "I would have just let her have it and ordered another bottle. This is a battle that does not need to be fought."

"This isn't just about my hair anymore," Emma said, narrowing her eyes and glaring in the direction of Nabiki Tendo. The brown-haired girl was sitting at the far table on the Quad, covered from sight by the trunk of a large tree and flanked by her four friends. "This is personal." She turned her eyes back to Melinda, her fingers crushing the cup of yogurt in her hand. "Emma Frost doesn't start battles, but she sure as shit ends them."

"I see," Melinda nodded, cracking her knuckles. Putting aside the matter of Ranma for a moment, she smiled and leaned back against the wall. "If you will not deviate from this course, then I suppose you could make use of some information I happen to have."

Emma lifted an eyebrow. "Go on."

"I got an A on my last Chemistry assignment."


"Not with the aid of one Nabiki Tendo."

"Dear cousin," Emma remarked, matching the other blonde's smile. "You have the most devious look in your eyes..."

Packing his pipe full of cheap tobacco, Genma stepped outside the dojo, quietly closing the sliding door behind him and stepping out into the night. Taking a seat on the steps, he began patting himself down, hoping he had some matches on him. Coming up with none, he sighed and sparked a small amount of yellow ki into his finger, setting alight the crushed leaf inside the bowl and inhaling deeply.

Exhaling the smoke from his nostrils, Genma tried to ignore the ache in his ribs. Akane had nailed him with a good kick during practice earlier, and it had aggravated one of the wounds he'd received earlier that week. He'd never been on the receiving end of a Moko Kaimon Ha before – he had no idea how much it actually hurt. The Kumon boy's Voice preventing him from defending himself, he'd received the full force of the attack and the ones that had followed. It had taken days to heal completely from the vicious assault, and even now Genma still felt the odd ache.

Genma grimaced at the memory. Kumon was going to be a problem, no two ways about it. He has mastered the Yamasenken, knew the location of the Umisenken, and had forced Genma to tell him how to recreate the destroyed Honousenken. If he managed to actually accomplish his goals...

Genma smirked, blowing out another lungful of smoke. Well, that was near-impossible. Not only was Kumon lacking the strength to wield the Honou, he was still missing a few key details. "Kids these days," He snickered. "Always running off without waiting for their elders to finish."

Blinking, his eyes darted upward as he felt an familiar and unwelcome presence rapidly. "Sage," He whispered, shivering inwardly.

Landing on the roof of the Tendo Dojo, the black-clad woman glanced into the yard. Dropping silently to the grass below, Sage removed her shades and glared at the large panda lying next to the koi pond. It rolled over onto it's back and began playing with a giant beach ball, aparently unaware of her presence. "Script."

The panda held up a wooden sign. 'NO SCRIPT HERE, MYSTERIOUS BLACK-CLAD STRANGER.' The sign flipped around. 'I'M JUST A CUDDLY LITTLE PANDA!'

A throwing knife flew through the air and punctured the multi-coloured inflatable water toy. The panda growfed angrily and glared at the woman, the letters on his sign glowing blue and shifting rapidly. 'HEY, THAT WAS MY FAVOURITE BEACH BALL!'

Sage rolled her eyes, sliding another knife out of her sleeve and into her waiting hand. She hated dealing with this fool. "If you are not Script, then how did you alter that text?"

'UH...' The letters shifted slower this time. 'SECRET PANDA-MAGIC?'

"I thought you might try this," She muttered, removing a small thermos from a compartment in her jacket and splashing the cursed martial artist. The panda was instantly replaced by Genma Saotome, sitting in a lotus position and glaring at her.

"Fine," The man grumbled. "What do you want, Tessa?"

"I witnessed your confrontation with Ryu Kumon. The Master has been informed as well." She explained, silently crouching in front of him. "The Honousenken must not be unleashed, and thus I have been directed with preventing the boy from recreating the system. I have been given leave to use any mean at my disposal."

"That doesn't explain why you are bothering me."

"I need your advice," Sage forced out through grit teeth, hating the truth of the admission. "You created his fighting style. Please-" She shut her eyes, stumbling over the next word, "-sensei. I do not know if I will ever face him in combat, but current analysis indicate such a confrontation is likely and that I would lose. I need to know how to neutralize the Yamasenken."

"Only my student when it suits you?" Script's lips twisted into a smirk. "You always did have trouble with Anything-Goes, Tessa."

Her glare deepened, but Sage's face remained outwardly stoic. He spoke the truth, as much as she hated to acknowledge it. The unpredictable nature of the Anything-Goes style was antithesis to her entire being – it defied standard analysis, and patterns were impossible to predict, especially with the masters of the school. The results of her one attempt to learn it was a memory she hid in the deepest recesses of her mind.

"I am only giving you this information because the alternative is too horrible to allow." Script continued, sighing and looking away. "You are one of the few to witness the Honousenken and survived to regret it. And I suppose in this, if nothing else, Erik and I are in rare agreement. The Honousenken cannot be unleashed.

"The Yamasenken itself cannot be neutralized, so don't bother trying," He continued, the moonlight glinting off his eyeglasses as he stared directly at her. "But there may be ways to counter the power of his Voice."

"Aww, yeah!" Evan pumped an enthusiastic fist as Kitty finished telling them her plan. "I am on board, man! The Prof's away-"

"-So the kids can play!" Kurt finished, flipping out of his celebratory handstand and high-fiving the other boy.

"And play it loud," Kitty giggled, shoving her Social Studies text into her locker and slamming the door shut with a bump of her hip. She danced over to the boys and joined the flurry of high-fives. "The final bell has rung and the weekend's begun, woo-hoo!"

"Reality check, people," Rogue broke in, giving her three friends a half-lidded gaze. Leaning up against Kitty's locker, she held up a hand and ticked off her first finger. "Y'all are forgettin' a few key things. Scott-" She ticked off another finger, "-and Jean."

"Oh yeah..." Kurt said, his shoulders slumping. "That is a prob-"

"Wait," Evan broke in. "Scott may be in charge, but Jean isn't. It's him and Ranma that are callin' the shots."

"Hey, yeah," The German boy said slowly, his grin returning to his face. "Jean can't do anything!"

"She can tell Scott," Kitty sighed. "And he can drydock us. The party would be over before it even begins, and we'd all get punishment duty..."

"And Kurt still has a week left on his punishment from last Friday," Rogue interjected.

"Two weeks, actually," Kurt deflated again. "They added on another one after the carnival..." He shook his head, looking back up with a smirk. "Ve can't let this get in out vay! The situation is too good to pass up!"

"Yeah!" Evan mirrored his grin, pounding a fist into his hand. "We can handle a little problem like this, man."

"Totally," Kitty agreed, her own enthusiasm returning. "What are X-Men if not problem solvers, right?"

"Think Ranma would do anything?" Evan asked, glancing over at Rogue, who shrugged, her disinterest plainly evident. "I mean, you could convince him, right?"

"Woah," Rogue snapped to attention and glared at the boy. "Ah ain't gonna use my relationship with him t'help y'all with this. Ah'll give ya a hand with Scott and Jean, but ya gotta work Ranma yourself."

"HEY RANMA!" Kurt shouted suddenly, causing Rogue to jump. The other three spun around to see the pigtailed boy on the other end of the hall, banging a fist against his locker in frustration. "VE'RE GONNA THROW A LITTLE PARTY TONIGHT! THAT COOL VITH YOU?"


Rogue groaned as Kurt turned back to them, grinning as he held up two fingers. "One down, two to go!"


"Yeah?" Risty replied, not looking up from the arduous task of directing the coat hanger through the window to unlock her vehicle.

"It's all set-" Kitty broke off, noticing the car. "Oh wow, like, are you actually driving MacIntyre's junkheap?"


"I was wondering why the parking lot was more oil stainy than usual..." The other girl murmured. "You do know the thing is a deathtrap, right?"


"And you still drive it?"

"I refuse to let a sodding machine get the best of me!" The purple haired girl declared, smirking victoriously as the door swung open with an odd gurgle. Bending the coat hanger back into the shape of an antenna, she turned to Kitty and smiled. "Woman will always triumph over that which is man-made. What's all set now?"

"The party!" Kitty exclaimed, looking down at her watch and dashing away. "Gotta run, no time for details! Tonight, our place, be there!"

"Uh... 'kay," She replied to the girl's retreating form. Party? What party?

Several seconds later she smacked herself in the forehead. "Bollocks, that party!" She'd gotten all caught up in the excitement of the Umisenken being unexpectedly opened, she'd completely forgotten about the plan for tonight. Was it even worth going through with now?

Risty thought for a moment, frowning as she debated internally, rapping her fingers against the rust-coated roof of the Ford Tempo. Nodding decisively, she got into the car. She'd put too much work into this to change her mind now, and the opportunity was too perfect to pass up.

Taking a deep breath, Xavier made a quick scan of the room, noting the positions of forty heavily armed soldiers and guards, each with a weapon trained on the comatose form of Cain Marko. Captain Stone stood next to a large switch, his expression serious ready if not eager for the go-ahead. Outside the room the entire facility was in lockdown, every possible security measure being taken.

And if Cain managed to break free in the twenty seconds his prison was deactivated, none of it would mean anything.

He looked back down at the main terminal of the containment unit; the outer plating was removed, the inner circuitry displayed before him. Tools in hand, Xavier took another breath and ran through a rapid mental checklist of what needed to be done.

"System shutdown on my mark," He said suddenly; no sense delaying it any further. "Now!"

Stone flipped the switch and the timer on the terminal immediately started counting down. Xavier began working rapidly, the room quickly growing dark as the PLEXUS system rebooted itself.

Cain's eyes began fluttering; the paralysis was wearing off. Xavier grit his teeth and worked faster, ignoring the shower of sparks spraying from the terminal as he reconnected a set of wires. Fifteen seconds.

His brother's fingers twitched, slowly clenching into fists capable of stopping a speeding eighteen-wheeler. Cain's expression grew more aware. He heard the clicks of dozens of automatic weapons chambering high-powered rounds. Sweat dripped from Xavier's forehead as he shut out all of this.

Cain's eyes snapped open. Nine seconds.

Xavier bit back a curse as more sparks erupted from the terminal, pressing on amidst the pin-pricks of burning pain that landed on his hands. Cain's eyes narrowed in fury as he took sight of him, lifting his massive arms over his head and straining the chains that held him to the floor.

"Charles..." He heard Stone's warning and ignored it. Five seconds.

The chains snapped, and Xavier gasped as his half-brother glared at him, grinning with cruel anticipation. His hands flew as he desperately tried to finish the repairs, simultaneously preparing his mind for the potential of launching a massive psychic assault.

Two seconds.

The Juggernaut's fist shot forward.

"System reinitialized," Xavier declared, the lights turning back on as power returned to the room. Cain's fist was an inch from the glass, slowly falling to his side as the chemical returned him to a comatose state. The room let out a collective sigh of relief, the soldiers hesitantly lowering their weapons.

"Stand down," Stone ordered, the tension fading from his face. Xavier frowned, holding his chin in his hands and as he stared up at his half-brother. "Is there another problem?"

"Yes," He nodded, not looking away. "This malfunction... it did not happen on it's own."

Stone went pale. "Are you saying-"

"As I was making the repairs, it became obvious," Xavier nodded, furrowing his brow. "This was sabotage."

Lookout Point, as it had been named by some unimaginative Bayvillian decades prior, was the highest ground one could find and still remain within city limits. Located in the high wooded hills on the edge of town, the Point itself was a natural clearing at the edge of a cliff, a simple wooden fence the only barrier between any visitor and the sharp five-hundred foot drop. The grass had long ago been worn away by the frequent visits of teenagers seeking seclusion for discrete activities – no official roads led up here, but decades of cars and motorcycles had created a crude path.

Leaning against the hood of his convertible, Scott looked out over the expanse of the small city below him. The sky was coloured a light pinkish-purple as the sun set over the horizon, and he thought he could see the streetlights slowly flickering to life below. A chill wind drifted through the trees, and he crossed his arms, taking a moment to check his watch at the same time. She was late.

Twisting his head at the quickly approaching sound of another car, Scott frowned as he saw a sleek midnight blue Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. Correction, Duncan was late.

"See you later, Duncan," Jean told the blonde quarterback in the driver's seat, giving him a peck on the cheek as she stepped out. Duncan smiled back at her – a slightly twisted grin Scott had come to loathe – and sped off, kicking up a large cloud of dust.

"Hi," Scott greeted awkwardly as Jean walked around his car, setting her book bag on the hood as she took a seat next to him.

"Hi," She replied, lifting her feet and resting them on the bumper.

"So what's up?"

Behind them, unnoticed, Kurt bamfed into existence and immediately ducked behind the car.

"I dunno," Jean replied, pursing her lips and looking at him askance. "I thought you'd tell me."

The German boy peeked over the edge of the trunk, and slowly crept forward, deftly reaching under the steering wheel. Next to him, Kitty's head quietly phased up through the trunk.

"Kitty said you wanted to meet me here."

The brown-haired girl behind them held a finger to her lips as she shared a glance with Kurt. Reaching forward, she slid her hand through Jean's bag and pulled out a cherry-red Helio Ocean.

"Weird," The redhead remarked, looking over at him. "Kurt said you wanted to talk to me."

Scott stood up and stepped away from the car. "Okay, yeah, I see what this is then."

Stifling snickers, Kurt and Kitty ducked back behind the car. Miming a high-five, they grasped hands and teleported away.

"Yeah," Jean said softly, brushing her fingers through her hair. "We must have been set u-"

"You're being sneaky again, aren't you?" He accused, spinning around and thrusting a finger at her. "You want me to come up here, but then turn around and blame someone else." Scott smirked, looking at her with a raised eyebrow. "Are you that jealous of Nabiki and Emma?"

"Oh, please," She sniffed, turning away and sticking up her nose. "As if I care at all about what you do with those two..."

"You cared enough to eavesdrop."

"I was NOT eavesdropping."

"Yeah, maybe your being there was just coincidence," He conceded, scratching the back of his head then stopping suddenly as he realized how Ranma-like the action was. Crossing his arms, he looked at her again dubiously. "But looking back on your recent history, I somehow find myself doubting that."

"My what?" Jean stared at him as if he'd grown a third nostril. "That doesn't make any sense! Why would I do anything like that?"

"How should I know?" Scott shot back, throwing up his hands. "You've been so far beyond screwed up for weeks, why would you stop now?" He immediately regretted his words.

"Maybe because I'm making a concentrated effort to not live in delusion anymore?" Jean snarled, her left eye beginning to twitch through the heated glare. She sprung to her feet and crossed her arms angrily, stalking around to the passenger-side of the car. "Wish I could say the same about present company..."

"Jean," Scott said, opening the driver's side door as the redhead buckled her seatbelt. "I shouldn't have said that-"

"Oh, stow it, Scott," She snapped, not looking at him. In the side-view mirror he could see her eyes beginning to water. "I don't need to be telepathic to know you've been thinking it for days. You all have."


"Forget it, Scott," She said, shaking her head and wrapping her arms around her stomach. "Just take me home."

"Right," Scott sighed, pushing his keys into the ignition. Giving them a quick turn, he blinked as the only sound that resulted was the jingling of metal. Several more tries produced the same result. "Hey, what's the deal?"

"Figures," Jean rolled her eyes. "You would do something like this."

"Do something like what?"

"Lure me out here and then 'oops, well-timed car trouble!'" She rolled her eyes again, her mood swinging too fast for Scott to catch it. "You are sorely lacking in originality."

"Hey, this was not my idea!"


"Welcome to party central!" Evan greeted, pulling open the large double doors and gesturing with a grand flourish towards the interior of the mansion. Heavy bass reverberated through the air inside, loud dance music and a multitude of conversations greeting the new arrivals.

"Woah," Webber grinned, his head craning to take in as much of the large room as possible. They were far from the first arrivals, the foyer already filled with several dozen dancing and chattering guests. "Dum da da-dum! Arcade has joined the party! This place rocks!"

"I told you it was plush," Risty giggled, grabbing the boy by the arm and dragging him off. "C'mon, I'll show ya around!"

"Sodas in the ice chest," Evan continued to the other new arrivals as Risty and her companion ran off, "Munchies on the table, stay on the ground floor, go outside if you have to smoke, and please-" He grinned, removing a small vase from the hands of a rowdy sophomore, "-don't break anything. Wanna know where anything else is, just ask one of us."

"I got one for you," A cool voice said from the doorway. Turning around, Evan saw Melinda leaned against the doorframe, hands tucked in the pockets of her tight denim jean skirt. The casual pose was ruined by the fierce determination in her blazing green eyes. "Know where I can find Ranma?"

"Uhh..." Evan drawled slowly. The look in the girl's eye was one he didn't want to mess with. "Afraid I couldn't tell you that but...." He grabbed the nearest housemate he could find and shoved him in the girl's direction with a sheepish grin. "But Bobby here should be able to help."

"Huh?" The younger boy said suddenly, momentarily choking on his drink. "I can help who with what now?"

"This lovely young lady needs some assistance," The bleach-blonde boy said, slowly backing away. "Why don't you give it to her?"

Bobby blinked and looked over the blonde girl, a sly look suddenly coming over his face as he took in her face and figure. "Well hello... Name's Bobby. Bobby Drake. And who might you be, gorgeous?"

Melinda's eyes widened briefly, then narrowed to thin slits. "Say that again."

"Say what again?" He asked, giving her his most charming smile. Bobby felt his spine chill at the look she returned. "The, uh, part where I called you gorgeous?"

"So," The girl said with a slow menace, cracking her knuckles as she stalked forward, a slight sway to her hips. "That was you on the phone the other day..."

Across from the stereo system, on the far side of the room, a pair of hands were delicately constructing a large submarine sandwich. Kurt licked his lips, grabbing a knife and slicing the hoagie in half. "Man," he said with satisfaction, lifting one half of the sandwich to his mouth. "Problem solving can sure make a guy hungry."

"Makes me wanna dance!" Kitty said, bouncing across the floor to the CD player and pumping up the volume. Swaying her hips to the beat as the sound blasted from the speakers – borrowed from Scott's room - she twirled enthusiastically back into the crowd.

Kurt grinned, shaking his head a he prepared to take a bite of his sandwich. Closing his teeth around nothing but air, he opened his eyes to find his half-brother leaning against the table, sandwich in hand; a large bite had been taken out of the painstakingly-crafted snack, and the pigtailed boy was looking at him with a curious expression.

"Uh, Ranma, that is mine..."

"Gotta be quicker than that, little bro," Ranma grinned. "So what's with the party? First I heard 'bout it."

"You said it vas cool if ve threw one."

"I don't remember sayin' that."

"It vas only a few hours ago," Kurt said defensively. "You vere busy vith your locker at the time, but you said it vas okay..."

"I remember the locker," Ranma said slowly, tearing off another hunk of his ill-gotten sandwich. "And the argument with maintenance after I tore it open, but nothin' 'bout no party. Didja get Scott's okay?"

"Uh, ve couldn't..."

"Because he wouldn't let ya?" Ranma smirked. "I could go ask him now if ya want..."

"No, that's, uh," Kurt's mind raced as he tried to think up an excuse. "Not a good idea. This party is, um, for Scott. Yeah, a surprise party. For Scott's birthday."

"You said that in a very convincin' way," Ranma deadpanned. "Scott's birthday ain't until December."

"I know," Kurt chuckled nervously, scratching at the back of his head. "Great surprise, yeah?"

"Uh-huh," His brother nodded dubiously. "Do ya honestly expect me t'beli-"

Ranma suddenly grabbed Kurt and spun him around, and the younger son of Mystique let out a yelp as he felt a cascade of cold liquid hit him in the back. "Vhat vas that for?"

"Bobby landed in the punchbowl," Ranma explained, letting go of the other boy. Looking over his shoulder, Kurt blinked as he saw the younger mutant had indeed been submerged in the fruity beverage. Behind the boy was Melinda, holding him down for a few seconds before yanking him out by the hair, a look of extreme satisfaction on her face.

"Oh, man," Bobby mumbled as Melinda dropped him to the floor, the dazed look on his face morphing into a stupid smile. "Whatta woman!"


"This was the guy who pretended to be you on the phone the other day," She explained, flipping her braid over her shoulder. She cast a grimace down at her now-soaking purple top, and Kurt fought back a blush as he realized how flimsy the material was. "Fuck me sideways," She muttered, "That is never going to come out..."

Looking up again suddenly, the blonde's eyes narrowed as she focused in on Ranma. "There you are!" Vaulting over the table, her foot caught the edge and she fell to the ground, causing everyone in view to wince sympathetically. Undeterred by her own clumsiness, Melinda sprang to her feet and grabbed Ranma by the arm, growling through tightly-clenched teeth. "Enough is fucking enough, we are going to talk!"

"Crap," Ranma muttered as he was dragged off. "Not that word again..."

Kurt felt a small amount of pity at the situation his brother was now it. He would have tried to do something to diffuse the girl's anger, but the growling of his stomach led his gaze back to the abandoned sandwich lying on the table. There probably wasn't anything he could do to help Ranma, now that he thought of it.

"Oh vell," He said to himself, taking a large, satisfying bite. The roast beef was soooo tender and juicy. "Who am I to interfere anyvay?"

"Okay, something is definitely up," Jean grumbled, throwing her bookbag angrily into the back seat of the car. "My phone is gone."

"How could you forget your phone?" Scott asked, looking up from his inspection of the engine.

"Did I say I forgot it?" She snapped, pacing along the side of the vehicle, her fingers clenching and unclenching. Now would be a great time for a- she banished the thought. "I know I had it in Duncan's car, 'cause Ranma accidentally texted me about pancakes."

"He hasn't figured out how to use his Blackberry yet?"

"Someone swiped it," Jean growled, ignoring Scott's interjection. "Right out of my bag, after I got here."

"I picked up on that," Scott replied drily, slamming the hood shut. "Nothing's wrong with the engine that I can find. Someone must have sabotaged the ignition system."

"No shit sherlock," She grumbled, cracking her knuckles with several loud pops. She wanted to punch something; she settled for the fence, which shattered with astounding ease. "It was probably the same person. What the hell do we do now?"

"First of all," Scott said firmly as Jean stared at her own fist in stunned amazement, "You need to calm down."

"I am calm," The redhead muttered. not as calm as if you had a null... "Shut up."

"And second," he continued, grabbing his bag and slinging it over his shoulder. "There's a pay phone at the bottom of the hill. You coming?"

Jean glared at the boy as he walked off, his tone striking all the wrong chords in her. She was tired, hungry, pissed, and goddammit she wanted a null! Reaching out with her hand pulling back sharply, she held back a smirk at Scott's yelp as he was suddenly dragged back to her side. Flipping her hair over her shoulder, she lifted her hands behind her head and started walking. That had been oddly therapeutic. "You coming?"

"Now, is it this turn here?" Risty queried as she and Arcade walked down the hallway. The sounds of the party were slowly fading into the background, and Arcade was beginning to wonder if where they were going counted as 'out of bounds'.

Not that he cared especially – he was hanging out with a totally hot girl with a sexy accent, and he wasn't even doing her homework! This was so worth missing that LAN party for.

"I've only been here one time before," Risty remarked, "But I think this hall leads to the library." If Arcade didn't know any better, it sounded like she was looking for a place they could be alone. He quickly turned to spray a quick blast of breath freshener into his mouth, and accidentally caught sight of a side hallway as he did.

"Hey," He said suddenly, slipping the small bottle of Misty-Mint into his pocket. "Weird-looking elevator."

"Hmm?" The British girl hummed, following his eyes. "Oh!" She grabbed him by the arm and grinned, "That must lead to their really big computer! Rogue was telling me about it earlier."

"Hold up," He smirked, narrowing his eyes challengingly at the elevator door as libido began battling with obsession. "Did someone say, 'big computer'?"

"Woah," Risty said with feigned astonishment, her head twisting about as she and Arcade stepped out of the elevator and into a large steel corridor. Several smaller hallways and doors branched from it, but it was too dark to see what any of them led to. "This is one cool basement!"

Reaching the end of the hall, the copper-haired boy grinned widely and gestured towards a small, hand-shaped panel next to a large metal door. "Electronic lock. It's gotta be in here." He reached into a pocket on the strap of his bag and pulled out a small rectangular device with a long, thick cord dangling from the end.

"You can hack security codes?"

Arcade snorted and plugged the drive into a small access port next to the panel itself. "It's a computer. You hack one, you've hacked them all."

Looking over his shoulder, Risty felt her eyes begin to strain as thousands of lines of code began flashing across the screen of the small handheld computer. Arcade seemed to have no trouble taking it all in, the fingers of his free hand performing a dazzling choreography against the keys. Stepping back, the purple-haired girl bared her teeth in an eager grin and let the boy do his thing.

Arcade smirked triumphantly as he successfully hacked the lock, winking at the British girl beside him. "What'd I tell you?" He said smugly, slipping the handheld back into his bag as the door slid open Star Trek-style, "Computers are all the same."

Walking into the dark room, the computer genius' eyes bugged out as he took in the massive chamber around them. In that moment, he completely forgot about the babe he'd come here with. "Woah," he breathed, feeling his knees go weak as his words echoed throughout the room. "I think I might have to rephrase that..."

Throwing Ranma to the floor of the first empty room she found, Melinda slammed the door with enough force to make the portraits rattle. In the back of her mind, she realized they were in a study of some kind, but the scenery was negligible; the characters involved were the important part.

"Shitjuggling cockstorm!" She snarled at the pigtailed boy, hands on her hips as she fixed him to the ground with an angry glare. "What is the monkeyfucking deal, Ranma?"


"You ball-less whorehopping eunich, do not even try to play dumb with me!" Melinda snapped, her fingers twitching as she resisted the urge to tug at her braid. "Your sorry stupid sexy ass knows damn well what I'm talki-"

"Yo, find your own room!"

Melinda spun towards the interrupting voice – a dark-haired boy with his hand up the blouse of a clearly embarrassed brunette. "What?" She growled warningly.

"Uh, it's just, um, we were here first..." The boy flinched. "So if you two could ju-"


The unknown couple eeped and made a mad dash for the door. The boy tripped a few times, to Melinda's growing ire, so she decided to hasten his progress by applying her foot to his backside. She slammed the door shut again, this time with enough force to knock down a portrait of a comely middle-aged woman.

"That was th'Prof's mom ya just knocked down," Ranma pointed out; he flinched as Melinda spun her furious gaze back at him.

"If you do not fucking tell me what the donkey-slut sucking hell is going on with you," the blonde snapped, "Then you will sure as shit envy the fate of that picture."


"Clusterfucking syphilis-junkie, do I have to spell it out for you Ranma?" Melinda's patience was wearing thin now. "You have been ignoring me for a goddamn week!"

"I ain't been ignorin' ya!" The pigtailed boy insisted, propping himself up on his elbows.

"Bullshit." She snarled again, blowing an errant strand of hair from her eyes. "You deliberately sit away from me during class when you actually show up, you vanish completely the rest of the day – shit, you barely manage to fucking wave a half-hearted hello in the mornings!"

Melinda crouched down in front of the boy, her eyes locked with his. "I want the truth," She spat, much of her rage draining away despite her best efforts – damn that boy's beautiful eyes! "Why the cuntstabbing cold shoulder?"

She frowned as the boy twisted his gaze away from her; grabbing his chin, she forced him to meet her eyes, a small pit of fear growing in her stomach. "It was the kiss, was it not?" Her voice held a hollow anger. "Are you that freaked out by me kissing your girl form? I would have bet that with your curse, you of all people would be accepting of alt-"

"It ain't that," Ranma interrupted, his speech distorted by the hand on his lower jaw. "You like girls, big deal."

"Girls and guys," She corrected, the corners of her lips twitching into a wry smile as the fear faded back into frustration. "I liked you quite well before I witnessed the change, remember. But we are finally getting somewhere – if it 'ain't that', then what is it?"

"Nothin'," Ranma muttered, pulling himself up into a seated position.

"More bullshit," Melinda countered bluntly, yanking his eyes back to hers as he tried to look away. Sitting down across from him, she propped her chin up in her free hand. "Stall all you want, stubborn boy, we are not leaving this room until you give it up."

"I could escape anytime I wanted, y'know."

"Yeah, probably," She conceded, smiling sweetly. "But you would not run away like that, would you?" Her smiled grew, and Melinda was well aware she resembled the proverbial cat who had just consumed the figurative canary. "Such an action would be rather... cowardly, do you not agree?"

Ranma flinched.

"Come to think of it," She continued, tapping her forefinger against his lower lip. "Your current refusal to tell me why you have been avoiding me... that too could be seen as an act of cowardice."

He flinched again, and Melinda could see protest forming in his grey-blue eyes. "Don't call me that..."

She smirked. "If it acts like a duck..."

"I ain't a duck, and I ain't a coward!" Ranma insisted, his temper visibly rising. He was taking the bait.

"What else would you call a boy," Melinda put deliberate stress on the word, "who refuses to look a girl in the eye and admit something is wrong?"

His knuckles were bone-white as his fingers dug into the carpet. "I ain't no coward!"

The blonde girl went on as if he hadn't spoken. "Big tough fighter-boy, my delectable ass." She snorted. "Able to face down the most fearsome of foes and brave the elements on the road for over a decade," She flashed him a cruel smirk, "But watch as he cowers before the innocent questions of a seventeen-year old girl." Melinda shook her head. "Pitiful, pathetic and above all... cowardly."

"STOP CALLIN' ME THAT!" Ranma shouted; Melinda forced herself to hold back a flinch at his intensity. "I AIN'T A FREAKIN' COWARD!"

"THEN PROVE IT, YOU WUSS!" She responded in kind, pulling his face within inches of her own. "What is the supreme mal-fucking-function?"

"Ya weren't s'posed t'know!" Ranma snapped, jerking his face out of her hand. Melinda blinked, falling forward slightly from the force of his pull. "Ya weren't s'posed to know, and I didn't want ya t'know."

"Well, tough," She said, quickly composing herself. "I know, so you are just going to have to deal with it."

"It ain't that easy."

"Sure it is," She rolled her eyes. "You must have dealt with it before. I know I cannot be the first person to see your curse, unless you have been hiding it from all these people you live with."

"You're the first t'react by shovin' your tongue down my throat."

"You mean your housemates never made the attempt?" Melinda snickered for a moment before fixing him with a flat stare. "So it does have something to do with the kiss."

"It ain't about the kiss," He insisted, meeting her glare with his on. "I... I wasn't expectin' ya to just accept the curse so easy like that."

"What should I have done?" The blonde rolled her eyes again. "Screamed in your face and called the cops? Shouted that I never wanted to see you again? Called you a freak and hit you with something?"

"Woulda been more in line with what I'm used to..."

"I could still hit you with something, if it would make you happy." Melinda stared at the boy for a few moments, then lifted an eyebrow as he said nothing more. "You cannot be fucking serious. That is what this whole bitchplunging shitburger is about? Because I just 'accepted it'? Because I did not react the way you are used to?"

"Nobody 'just accepts it'," Ranma muttered. "They get pissed, hit me, call me a freak, splash me for days on end like I'm some kinda toy... nobody just comes out with 'Hey, you turn into a girl? Cool! By the way, may I check for loose fillings with my tongue?'"

"You dumb shit," Melinda growled, grabbing her braid and twisting it; better her hair than the boy's neck. "You really think it was that leg-humping easy? Finding out magic is real and can make a hunky guy into a tasty babe with just a splash of goddamn water?"


"It was not fucking easy!" She snapped, ignoring his dumbfounded expression. "Cockmuching bunghole bandit-wanker, I nearly fainted when I saw it happen! I was ready to scream the entire time you were explaining it, and for the last week have contemplated splashing everyone I know to see if THEY are hiding anything! You seriously believe it was that easy for me to just accept that everything I know is wrong?" She growled, breathing heavily as she felt a week of built-up anger and frustration bubble over. "Further-fucking-more, you think ditching me for a week was the best fucking plan, you spooge-sucking nostril-twat?"


"Badly-drawn spastic ass-clowns on parade, OF COURSE IT FUCKING WAS NOT!" The blonde rose to her feet, her eyes covered by her bangs as she stared away from the boy. Her hand shook angrily at her side, and suddenly without realizing it she found it rising into the air above her head. Melinda managed to catch herself as she saw the pigtailed boy's eyes reflexively snap shut, and everything she knew about Akane Tendo flashed through her mind. It would be oh so easy to follow through, and oh so tempting – hell, she was pretty sure she was justified...

"Fuck this," Melinda stated, throwing open the door. Despite everything, she had no desire at all to hit him – violence wouldn't get her point across, and she had no intention of burning any bridges here. She shook her head, suddenly feeling the need to get away for a while. "It should be shit-fucking simple to see why I did not react the way you thought, but fuck me sideways if I am going to stand here and listen to the words of a liar and a coward. Get a spine, stop dodging your problems and figure it out for yourself."

Glancing back at the stunned boy, Melinda flipped her braid over her shoulder and met his eyes with a half-lidded gaze. "Come find me when you are ready to quit being such a pussy. I will be waiting."

"I've never seen anything like this before," Arcade said, his eyes locked on the internal circuitry of the oddly-shaped helmet connected to the large terminal in the center of the room. Risty couldn't see what he was doing, but his fingers were flying across the keyboard of his handheld. "Beyond cutting edge technology. I think I can reconfigure the headgear, though, to accept me as the primary user and- done!"

"You're in?" She tried to keep herself calm. So close...

"We have access!" The boy said, slipping the helmet on and sitting down at the chair. The screen flashed on, a large green and silver X symbol with a glowing red circle in the center staring back at him, framed by a box with the words 'Retinal Scan'. The boy blinked as a red beam of light shot out quickly into his eye, and a few moments later the word 'Accepted'' flashed across the screen.

The larger circle surrounding the scanner began spinning like a combination lock, and the X slowly split in two and slid off the screen. Risty's breath caught in her throat as she saw what lay behind it.

"Welcome to Cerebro?" Arcade read out loud. "Funny name for an OS. Least it ain't Vista..."

"Say," The purple-haired girl said slowly, forcing a tone of nonchalance she was not in anyway feeling. "You don't suppose they have any games on here, do you?"

"I hope so," The boy said excitedly as his fingers tapped away at the keyboard. "Having a system this advanced and using it for spreadsheets and PowerPoint would be most heinous. Hey, Frogger..."

Screens of varying sorts flew by as the boy searched for digital entertainment, Risty's own feelings of anticipation threatening to spill out of her. Her heart skipped a beat as she saw a picture of a brown-haired boy in a dark blue and yellow uniform float past, a green box containing statistics and other nuggets of information next to it. It was soon replaced by another picture, and then another.

"Who do you think those people are?"

"Game characters?" Arcade guessed with a shrug; he didn't seem at all impressed by them.

"Coool," She exclaimed, giving his shoulder a light squeeze. "I could sure use those for my computer class assignment!" She bit her lip and pressed her cheek gently against his. "I don't suppose you could make me a copy of that file, could you?"

"Sure, why not," Arcade shrugged, seemingly unaffected by the close-contact. Risty frowned inwardly; it may serve her purposes at the moment, but it was hardly manly to pay so much attention to a computer when a pretty girl was nearby. "I'll burn you a DVD."

A dark red X appeared on the screen, a circle slowly forming around it as the file names scroll along both sides of the screen. Within seconds the circle was complete, and the disc drive slid open, revealing a simple golden DVD.

"Here ya go," Arcade said flippantly, not noticing as Risty practically tore his arm off grabbing the disc. "Now leave me alone. Arcade needs to get his game on!"

"Um, 'kay," Risty said distractedly, staring at the disc with undisguised adoration. The boy's hands were already back on the keyboard, scrolling through every file that looked like it might contain something related to his obsession. "I'll just pop out, make a quick appearance, and be right back."


Dashing out of the room, Risty hoped that they weren't too hard on the boy when he was caught. Glancing up at the security cameras outside the room, she frowned and decided to make one last stop before she left.

Back at Cerebro, Arcade was almost drooling as he looked over the specs of various machines and vehicles, his mind filled with the possibilities of what they may look like in all of their rendered glory. "Now this looks promising..." He said as a grin threatened to split his face. "Danger Room..."

Opening the application, his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as a massive rectangular hologram suddenly sprung up in the large open space above the terminal. "Holy shit..." he said as he stood up, slowly removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes. Putting the lenses back on, Arcade fell back into the chair and felt a thrill run down his back. "I have got to get in on the beta for this!"

"You know, I bet it was Kurt," Jean growled, bumping into Scott as the truck made a sharp left. "Who else could pop in and grab my phone without us noticing?"

"Jean," Scott said, gesturing covertly towards the driver sitting on the other side of her – a middle-aged man with an unshaven neck and a blue and white trucker cap, staring with dull eyes at the road ahead. In the review mirror he could see his convertible being hauled behind them. "I'm sure you just misplaced it."

She didn't appear to notice the gesture, apparently content to cross her arms angrily across her chest and continue muttering. "I bet he got Rogue to help him out with it too, lousy little..."

"Why are you blaming Rogue?"

"She's been giving me crap for days now," Jean told him, narrowing her eyes. "Weeks even. Dirty looks and little comments when she thinks no one else can hear."

"Can you blame her?" Scott retorted, giving her a challenging look. "I mean, what you did to Ranma-"

"I know what I did to Ranma!" She snapped back. "I'm sorry about it, and wish I could take it back, but it was done to Ranma, not her!"

"He wasn't the only one affected."

"What do you want from me Scott?" Jean's gaze suddenly dropped and she began to wring her hands. The truck swung a hard right, slamming Scott's shoulder painfully into the window. "I admitted what I did was wrong. I admitted that I made a lot of mistakes, hell, I admitted that I'm an addict – what more do I have to do?"

Scott eyed the driver again, but the man seemed not the least concerned with what they were talking about. Looking back at the redhead, he kept his voice low anyway. "I don't know," He admitted. "But you can start by not snapping at everyone or finding things to get pissy about."

"I'm not pissy," She said defensively, "I'm just, y'know, going through withdr-"

"Woah!" Scott cried out suddenly, grasping about for something to hold on to as the tow truck careened around another corner, coming uncomfortably close to the edge of the cliff and causing the redhead to slam into him. Glancing across Jean to the driver, he chuckled nervously. "Mind, uh, slowing down a bit?"

"Sorry," The driver said flippantly, the entire vehicle jumping as he ran over a large pothole, "Got me a schedule t'keep."

"Uh-huh," He said, eyeing the large drop only inches to his right.

"Springer's on in twenty and we is runnin' late."

In the main room, the party was heating up as more people arrived. The walls shook as heavy dance music blasted from the speakers. Several pieces of furniture had been overturned, and so many drinks had been spilled on the carpet it had become a guessing game trying to determine what the original colour had been.

A pair of freshmen dancing near the far wall didn't even notice as they bumped into a small pedestal, knocking over the stone bust it held. Rogue winced as the sculpture shattered upon impact with the floor. From the other remnants covering the floor, it wasn't the only piece of art that had fallen victim to reckless youth. Biting her lip, she watched in amazement as the younger students were swept up in the merriment – even the ever-responsible Amara had apparently been taken in by the festivities.

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea..." She murmured to herself, unable to hear even her own words over the music. She felt a growing feeling of unease within her, and the sudden blinking of the X on her watch sent the sensation into overdrive. "Definitely not a good idea," Rogue whispered, quickly rushing off down the hall.

Staring dumbly at the open doorway, Ranma shook his head and pushed himself off the floor with a sigh. "Such an idiot," he admonished himself. He should have realized by now that ignoring the problem never helped – it definitely had a track record of colossal failure in the last two weeks alone. His eyes drifted to the carpet, focusing in on the dark spots where a few tears had fallen, and his face twisted into a grimace. "I gotta apologize to Mel."

Stepping into the hallway, Ranma frowned suddenly as he felt a prickle on the back of his neck. Dodging back, he stared in surprise as Kitty and Evan race past him. Glancing down at his image inducer, he frowned and slapped his forehead as he saw that the small red X in the corner was blinking. That meant something bad...

"There ya are! C'mon!"

He looked up and forced out all thoughts of Melinda, quickly falling into pace beside Rogue. "What's goin' on?"

"Dunno," She said with a shake of her head, her lips compressed into a thin line. "Somethin' is goin' down, though, and it ain't good."

"Hell," Ranma groaned, grabbing Rogue and blasting off down the hall; this was probably something he was gonna get blamed for.

"Ooo, this is niiice," Arcade cackled as he played around with the various weapons in the game. "Best graphics I've ever seen, killer sound... all it needs is a few enemies."

Spinning around to the side terminal, the bespectacled boy kept one eye on the Danger Room – which didn't really need his attention; the lasers and buzzsaws and robotic tentacles were cool, but kinda lame without any enemies to use them on – and used his free hand to bring up the character files. Quickly scanning through the lamer-looking ones, Arcade grinned as he finally came upon the first promising fighter. "Hmmm..." He said, taking in the character's stats an appearance. "Not bad, but the visor is kinda lame."

Next came up a sinister-looking figure with a shadowy helmet, in a reddish-purple costume. "M. Bison rip-off," Arcade snorted, moving on past the blue-skinned woman, the oddly familiar goth-vampire chick. He briefly lingered on the dark-haired Asian guy with amazing stats, but waved him off – the pigtail was just too sissy.

He jerked backwards as the next character came onto the screen, and his face twisted into a mask of disgust. "Man, they made HER into a game character? That psycho-bitch?!" He shook his head and shuddered. "That's just sick. I like violence, but some things are just in bad taste..."

Scrolling through the next few characters, the red-haired boy suddenly grinned. "Here we go..." He said, clicking 'upload' and rubbing his hands in anticipation. "This one looks promising."

"Now let's see," Risty muttered to herself, her bright blue-gray eyes flickering over the multiple surveillance files from the past several hours. "Arrival at the mansion... deleted. Elevator deleted. Hallways outside of Cerebro deleted, deleted, deleted. Woah," She blinked, seeing seven separate cameras recording Cerebro itself; Xavier was more paranoid than she thought.

"Deleted, deleted, deleted," She grinned to herself, her free hand reverently stroking the edge of the newly-burned DVD.

"Hacking Cerebro, deleted," She muttered happily, her hand lifting from the keyboard and firing a small blast of dark blue ki at the ceiling. The ball impacted with the small automated defensive drone and exploded, sending scraps of metal and a shower of sparks to the floor behind her. "Stealing files, deleted..."

Making one last scan of the terminal before her, Risty nodded in satisfaction at finding her visit to the mansion had, effectively, never happened. Lifting her hand again, she fired off another Karasu Panpan, sending another security camera to the great junkyard in the sky. Slipping the disc into her pants pocket, Risty giggled and skipped out of the room.

"Ah, crap." Ranma said bluntly, glancing up at the blinking red lights that accompanied the high-pitched buzzing of the alarm. "This does not look good."

"That's cause it ain't good," Rogue said, gesturing with a thumb to the large door that led into the X-Men's primary training facility. With her and Ranma were Kitty, Evan and Kurt, all five in uniform. "Someone managed t'activate the Danger Room. Ah can't even get th'door open!"

"No problem," Nightcrawler grinned. "I can just pop in and shut it down from the inside!"

Before any of his friend's could say anything else, the blue-furred boy vanished from sight.

Reappearing inside the Danger Room, Nightcrawler let out a yelp as he barely managed to dodge a laser beam. Sparing a moment to gape at the spot he'd been in seconds before – now a small, smoking crater – he dodged again as a small iron ball shot out from the wall, nearly striking him in the back. More projectiles followed, not allowing the fuzzy mutant a moment to think as he slipped into his training, dodging and teleporting around the room as he tried desperately to avoid injury.

"VHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!" He cried out to anyone that may be listening. His eyes darted up to the control center at the top of the room. With a moment's thought he appeared at the ceiling, adhering himself to the wall and peeking inside. The lights were on, and various systems were activated, showing the room itself and the functions currently active, but no one was inside operating them.

Falling to the floor as a pendulum swung from the ceiling, Kurt grunted as a wall suddenly slid out of the floor and caught him in the stomach.

Clutching at his abdomen, Nightcrawler slid off the wall and down to the floor. Leaning against the hard surface behind him, his head lowered as he caught his breath, taking advantage of what seemed like a temporary lull in the action. He felt a chill suddenly run up his spine as a large black boot entered his field of vision. Lifting his head slowly, Nightcrawler gasped in fear as he took in the menacing figure before him.

A muscular arm covered in loose brown armour shot out before he could react, black nails digging into his neck and lifting the blue-furred boy several feet off the ground.

"Finally!" Arcade exclaimed, "Some enemies!"

The boy blinked as an alert suddenly popped up on one of the side-screens. "Difficulty level?" He wondered aloud. Why was it asking him this now – usually it had to be set before a game even started.

Shrugging his shoulders, he grinned as he saw the last option on the list. "Here we go," He smirked, selecting 'Safeties Off' and hitting enter. "Blood mode, sweet!"

"What's takin' him so long?" Ranma asked impatiently, leaning against the wall. "I got a bad feelin' 'bout what's goin' on in there..."

Biting her lip, Shadowcat quickly poked her head through the wall, then just as quickly yanked it back out, her eyes frantic. "Sabretooth is in there!" She cried out, grabbing Spyke and Rogue and pulling them through the door with her. "He's got Kurt!"

"Hey!" Ranma shouted, managing to grab onto Rogue's hand just before the three vanished through the door.

Appearing on the other side slightly dazed – he wasn't near as used to passing through solid matter as some of his team mates were - the pigtailed boy quickly located Logan's enemy. The savage mutant was standing in the center of the room, laughing with cruel satisfaction as he held Nightcrawler several feet off the ground.

Ranma's vision went red, and he leapt into action without a moment's hesitation, hurling himself at Sabretooth and delivering a brutal haymaker to the back of his head. His foe growled, dropping the German mutant to the ground and spinning around, slashing at the pigtailed boy with his claws.

Ranma frowned as he easily dodged the attacks; he'd only fought Sabretooth once before, but he could tell already that there was something off about the way his opponent was fighting. He seemed to be moving a lot slower than Ranma knew he could, and there was a strange lull before he attacked – no more than a nanosecond, but enough for him to realize that Sabretooth was fighting with means other than brute force and pure animal instinct.

There was also the fact that he had no ki. That was really weird.

A spin kick sent 'Sabretooth' to the other side of the room - conveniently crashing through three automated laser cannons along the way – and Ranma took the moment to drop to the ground, helping his half brother to his feet.

"You okay bro?" There were five small cuts in his neck, but none of them appeared to be serious.

"I am okay," Nightcrawler managed to cough out, lifting a hand to rub at his sore neck. "I vas not expecting to see him here!"

"That ain't Sabletoot," Ranma shook his head, watching as Spyke pinned the foe to the wall with a multitude of bone spikes. "He ain't actin' like Ugly, and he ain't got no ki."

"What is he then?" Shadowcat shouted, phasing through a wall that sprang up in her path and causing a buzzsaw to destroy itself as it tried to follow her.

"Gotta be a hologram mapped onto one of th'bots!" Rogue answered for him, swerving through the laser blasts of a cannon. Ducking behind it, she grabbed it, grunting as she forced it to fire on a set of wall-mounted flamethrowers. "Why the hell are we talkin'? Shut the room down already!"

"COMPUTER, END PROGRAMS!" Ranma shouted, shoving his brother out of harms way and tearing through a gauntlet of spikes shooting up from the floor. "INSTRUCTOR OVERRIDE, CONFIRMATION CODE 'OKAASAN'!"

"ACCESS DENIED." The computer replied in a flat monotone.

"Shit!" Ranma cursed, using a mechanical arm as a springboard to propel himself into 'Sabretooth', who had managed to pull himself free of the wall. Delivering a spin-kick to his chest, Ranma tried again. "INITIATE SYSTEM SHUTDOWN! OVERRIDE CODE ALPHA ZERO-ONE-ZERO!"


Ranma grunted as Sabretooth suddenly burst forward, nearly nailing him across the chest with a vicious swipe of his claws. "ROAST PANDA KEBABS!"


"It's not working, man!" Spyke shouted, blocking a swinging blade with some hastily-grown bone armour. Growing a razor-sharp bone out of his wrist, he quickly severed the blade from the mechanical arm holding it. "Someone's blocking us!"

"Ain't possible!" He growled, hitting 'Sabretooth' with an uppercut, then following him into the air and assaulting the hologram with a series of lighting-fast punches. "I got Instructor-level access!" 'Sabretooth' was sent back to the ground with an axe kick to the shoulder. "Only a whaddayacallit, Administrator can block that!"

"Whoever is doin' this musta given themselves higher clearance!" Rogue leapt at the hologram as soon as it hit the ground, delivering a knee to the back of his head. She cried out as 'Sabretooth' growled and grabbed her leg, throwing her up into the air. Gaining control of her trajectory, she flipped forward and landed shakily on the top of a cannon, taking the opportunity to yank out several key wires. "Dammit, how many of these stupid things are there?"

"Oh man, this game has seriously picked up!" Arcade grinned from ear-to-ear, his fingers a blur on the keyboards as he continued the assault on the newly-arrived characters. The pigtailed one was strong, and for a moment the gamer wondered if he should have picked him instead of the cooler-looking Sabretooth. The little punk even seemed to have the power to attempt to shut down the game, which the red-haired boy had to admit was pretty badass. Quickly he brought up the pigtailed character's profile, attempting to prepare himself for what else the AI might throw at him.

Gritting his teeth, he shook his head and sent in another half-dozen spinning blades, absently noting that he would run out of that resource soon. No matter – he had much more to choose from. That giant spiked ball looked pretty wicked.

The pigtailed character had a very advanced AI, but he was Arcade, and he had yet to meet a game he couldn't conquer. No matter what character he chose, he did not lose.

Spyke grunted as a backhand threw him against the wall; ignoring the pain – cushioned somewhat by the armour grown out of his back – he slid to the ground and fired a barrage of spikes. The projectiles struck 'Sabretooth' in the abdomen, but did little to the solid-light construct. "Man!" He shouted, rolling out of the way of a flamethrower before disabling it with a fast hook kick. "Sabretooth isn't this tough!"

"He's bein' controlled!" Ranma shouted back, firing a pin-point ki blast at a wall-mounted energy crossbow. Weaving through a flurry of dark green energy blasts, he charged 'Sabretooth' and pushed him back into the center of the room with a spin kick. "Whoevers doin' this is givin' Ugly's strength and speed some actual intelligence an' strategy t'back it up!"

The entire room suddenly shifted, the central platform Ranma and 'Sabretooth' were on rising several meters into the air. Along the wall dozens of mounted arms sprang out of panels and immediately began firing bolts of crackling blue electricity.

"Woah, heavy duty stuff is comin' out now," Rogue dove out of the path of a gigantic falling ball of spikes, landing in a crouch and immediately flipping into the air, a laser sizzling the spot she'd been standing. "This ain't workin', guys!"

"The Danger Room has too many – ugh – functions!" Shadowcat answered, sliding under a large drone and then phasing up through the floor behind it. Phasing a hand through the machine, it suddenly slumped forward, it's electrical systems disrupted by the act. "We have to get to whomever is doing this and make them stop!"

Kicking a cannon of it's mount and into 'Sabretooth', Ranma followed behind the makeshift projectile with a flying kick. "Then go do that!" He shouted, bending to avoid his opponent's claws and catching it in the chin with his heel. "Whoever's controllin' Ugly seems to wanna take me down first! I'll keep 'im occupied, you guys go figure out what the hell is goin' on!"

A large steel wall suddenly shot up from the edge of the platform, followed in rapid succession by three more. Locks clicked into place around the edges, effectively sealing the pigtailed boy and his artificial opponent from the other X-Men.

"Ah think he might be right about that," Rogue said slowly. Giving the recently-formed room a look of concern, she jumped away from a spinning blade, landing next to Shadowcat. "C'mon, we're gettin' outta here!"

"Vhat about Ranma?" Nightcrawler asked, appearing next to them, wielding a broken robotic arm like a club and smashing a sawblade that spun too close.

"Ranma can take care of himself," She said, glancing over again at the steel chamber in the center of the room. "He's givin' us the time t'get out and stop this before it gets any worse."

"How could it get any worse?" Spyke shouted from across the room, ducking under a squirming steel tentacle and smashing a pair of machines with a large spiked staff.

A red light suddenly filled the room, and several dozen panels in the wall opened, revealing so many heavily-armoured quadropedal robotic drones. The mechanical constructs immediately began firing on the group.

"You had to ask!" Nightcrawler whined, popping over to the other boy and grabbing him. Shadowcat pulled Rogue through the wall as their companions teleported out of the room.

"Hey, where do you think you're going?" Arcade frowned, watching as four of his opponents vanished from the screen. A quick glance at another monitor showed that Sabretooth was still battling with the pigtailed boss – had to be a boss; regular enemies weren't that strong – and that he was alone.

"SYSTEM HAS BEEN COMPROMISED." His eyes darted up the holographic display above him. Instead of the game, the screen now flashed red, reading 'DEFCON-4' in large blinking letters. "INITIATING DEFCON-4."

"Defcon-4?" Arcade blinked, a large smile suddenly splitting his face. "I like the sound of that!"

"Thanks again," Scott told the tow truck driver as the man dropped them off outside the mansion. "And sorry about my friend's attitude. She's, uh, been through some stuff lately..."

"Whatever," The man said, taking a moment to spit out the window.

"You didn't seem too shocked by what you heard..."

"This line o'work, ya tend t'hear a lot of stuff from angry couples." The man shrugged, starting up the truck. "Ain't nothin' I ain't heard before. She's an addict, yer a wuss, and one of ya owes me two hunnert bucks."

"Uh, right..." Scott sighed as the driver peeled away from the mansion, leaving him coughing in a cloud of exhaust. "Jerk."

"Scott!" Jan shouted, causing the boy to turn around. His eyes widened behind his shades as he saw dozens of cars parked in front of the mansion, and through the windows he could see the silhouettes

"What the..." His jaw dropped. "They threw a party!"

"Oh they are busted," She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. "Looks like certain housemates of ours plotted to get rid of us! They knew you'd never allow this party, and despite my not being in charge, probably thought I would try and stop them too."

"Yeah," Scott said, rubbing the back of his head. "I guess you were right. Sorry about accusing you of... y'know."

"Yeah, me too," Her arms tightened around her chest. "I just-"

A sudden clanging sound coming from the mansion cut her off. Both mutants eyes went wide as they watched heavy steel shutters slam into place along every window and door of the Institute, blocking off any possible exit or entry into the building within seconds.

"Oh crap," Scott muttered, holding out and arm and pushing Jean back slightly. The eyes of the statue in the middle of the courtyard fountain began blinking red. Slowly it rose, revealing a large and unpleasant-looking weapon hidden beneath. Around the fountain, several more pieces of automated weaponry began popping up from hidden panels under the lawn. "This looks bad."

Jean leapt up in the air when the statue-cannon began glowing a hellish red, and Scott dove out of the way as a bright red pulse of light. Rolling along the ground, he came back up in a crouch, whipping off his shades and firing back with a beam of concussive force back at the statue, scoring a direct hit on the machine and putting it out of commission – he hoped.

Spinning around, he fired off another blast at a small cannon hidden in the tree above him, while Jean tore several of the ground cannons from their mounts with waves of telekinetic force. Tossing his sunglasses aside, Scott whipped out his spare visor and slipped it over his eyes.

"C'mon!" He said as Jean landed beside him. "We can get in through the launch bay."

"That's on the other side of the mansion!" Jean exclaimed, raising a telekinetic shield against a barrage of crackling blue energy. "Who knows what's between us and it?"

"It's the only way in." He said simply.

Ducking under a crackling red blast of energy, Risty jumped up and destroyed the weapon with a spin kick. Landing in a run, she sped though an open doorway, spinning around as soon as she was through. "Karasu Panpan!" She cried out, a softball-sized ball of blue ki rocketing from her outstretched palms and decapitating a large spider-like robot that had been pursuing her.

Leaning against the wall to catch her breath, her mind raced as she tried to figure a way out of the mansion. The elevator had been deactivated when she'd found it, and every door she'd come across after had led to a dead end or been sealed completely.


Her head snapped up again, and Risty bit back a curse as she saw the robot wasn't quite as destroyed as previously thought. Pulling back her hands, she struggled to summon the strength for another ki attack, hoping she hadn't drained her reserves too much in the flight here.

Crunch! The robot was smashed as a the doorway slid shut. She blinked and let out a strained laugh, sliding down the wall to the floor. "That was lucky," She muttered to herself, her words echoing against the high walls of the large room. Looking around, her shoulders slumped upon seeing no other exits."Maybe I spoke too soon..."

A pair of large bipedal robots descending from the ceiling, and out of the walls popped multiple nasty-looking machines. "Definitely spoke too soon."

"A-ha!" Arcade grinned, pumping a fist as he stared at the lower corner of the holographic display. After searching through the numerous screens of the game, he'd finally found the characters that had managed to escape. "Trying to get away? Arcade proving too much for you?"

Linking a series of commands for his Sabretooth, he diverted his attention to the corridor the other four characters were running through. A small line of drool dangled from his mouth as he looked over the assortment of nasty surprises he had access to on this level. "Man, Defcon-4 really kicked this game up a notch!"

Amara didn't know what this song was, and at the moment, she didn't care. Her body was swept up by the beat, completely driving away any apprehensions she'd had against this party.

A small part of her mind still realized they would get in trouble if they were caught, but the rest of her simply couldn't find it in herself to care. Swaying through the ground, she grinned as she saw Sam sitting on the couch next to Bobby, both holding sodas – the latter still a little damp from his earlier trip into the punchbowl. Flashing the blonde boy a smile, she grabbed his hand and pulled him off the couch, his soda landing on the floor. "C'mon!"

She heard Bobby laughing at him as she pulled the boy away, then heard him cry out as Jubilee snagged him. Ignoring the two, she stopped by the window and smiled again as Sam slowly got accustomed to the beat – she had to hold back a giggle, however, at his slight degree of awkwardness.

Catching something out of the corner of her eye, Amara suddenly went still, barely noticing as Sam crashed into her. "Hey, what's the deal?"

"The window," She whispered, her eyes darting around to see if anyone else had noticed. Pulling him with her, she reached out a hand and jerked it back as she felt the cold metal shutter. "Something is up. Go tell the others, we have to keep anyone else from seeing this."

Twisting in midair, Ranma landed with his feet against one of the walls, shooting forward and catching his computer-generated foe in the chest with his shoulder. A heel-kick to the side followed the attack, and the pigtailed boy propelled himself away, delivering another shot to the jaw before landing on his feet at the other end of the cage.

'Sabretooth' seemed unphased by the assault, roaring incoherently and charging forward again. The real Sabretooth didn't have much in terms of combat skill, usually preferring to let rage and his mutant abilities get him through a fight. Oh, he had some martial arts training – Ranma had noticed some basic hand-to-hand, karate , taekwondo, and, oddly enough, malla-yuddha – but it was barely negligible compared to his own level of mastery.

Jumping over another swipe, Ranma nailed 'Sabretooth' twice in the side of the head with a butterfly kick. Taking the blows, his opponent snagged his leg and slammed him against the wall. Falling to the floor, Ranma grunted as 'Sabretooth' kicked him in the stomach. Whoever was controlling this loser had strategy and insanely good reflexes; added with the enclosed space they were now in, a foe that would normally have been a pushover was taxing him to his limits.

Ranma spat out some blood and rolled out of the way of another flurry of claws. Especially since the Danger Room's safeties had been deactivated.

A sweeping kick sent Ugly to the ground again, and Ranma sprang up with a knee-strike to the stomach before he landed. His back exploded in pain as a set of claws tore through his uniform and flesh, splattering blood on the walls. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Ranma, knocked his opponent to the other end of the cage with a rapid combo. Breathing heavily, he flared his ki and pumped it into his muscles, doubling his speed and strength as he charged forward, pummeling 'Sabretooth' with glowing fists.

"No way!" Arcade stared at the screen in shock. This guy was definitely a boss, no doubt about it now. "What was that, some kinda limit break?"

Distractedly setting the weaponry he was using on the other characters, Arcade began focusing on the fight. He couldn't wait to see what happened when he took this punk AI down.

"What I mean is, you really shouldn't – behind you! - have hidden it from us!" Dodging through a gauntlet of crackling energy beams and miniature rockets, Cyclops looked over at Jean. "You ready?"

"Yeah," She nodded, focusing herself as the cliffside rapidly approached, the sounds of the rushing waterfall used to disguise the launch bay doors overwhelmed by the explosions. It had been hell making their way to the back of the mansion, and the telepathic girl was beginning to feel the strain of her powers. Along with the strain, unfortunately, came the need.

"I wasn't thinking clearly," She replied quietly, quickly shaking off the thought as they reached the waterfall. Can't be distracted by sweet, forbidden nulls.... "JUMP!"'

Leaping off the cliffside seconds before three rockets exploded where they'd been standing, Cyclops shot apart the debris above them. Grabbing hold of Jean's hand as they fell, he began counting the seconds, ready to blast through the precise moment they were outside the hanger doors. Spreading her telekinesis in a bubble around them, Jean slowed their descent, fervently hoping that no hidden surprises awaited them on the cliffside. Her mind reflexively surged, sending out a scan of the mansion grounds in an effort to locate Ranma.

Cyclops kept his gaze locked on the waterfall, a hand raised to the aperture switch of his visor. "I know that look," he said suddenly, his voice almost drowned out by the sounds of rushing water.

"What?" Jean started as she heard his voice, and slapped herself mentally as she realized what she was doing. "It was an accident..."

"Sure it was." Blasting through the water at the precise moment, Cyclops carved a hole through the thick doors of the launch bay, and Jean floated them through the waterfall and into the room. Landing in a crouch, the visor-clad mutant blew apart a pair of spherical ceiling-mounted drones. "Just stay focused," He said, his eyes darting around, seeking out additional threats. "Don't think about it."

"I don't need you babysitting me," Jean's eye twitched, and she threw a wave of telekinetic force at the wall, crushing an unknown machine crackling with red electricity as it popped out of a hidden panel. "And honestly, I hardly think this is the time and place for this discussion!"

"You're right," He said with a grimace, pausing to blow apart the next set of doors. "I'm sorry, Je-"

"Goddammit, Scott!" She growled, eyeing the large bipedal robot that greeted them on the other side, it's multiple barrels immediately bombarding them. Jean's eyes grew wide, and she hastily threw up a shield to deflect the relentless assault of laserfire. "Just stop apologizing already!"

"What?" Cyclops strafed the mechanical threat, blowing apart one of it's massive legs and sending tumbling sideways. Sensing an opportunity, Jean fired her shield forward, crushing the robot against the wall like a cockroach.

"Stop apologizing!" She repeated, jumping at the wall and removing yet another cannon with a spin-kick, her telekinesis adding power to the blow. "Stop holding back! You're angry with me, so be angry at me! I deserve it!"

"You really want me to?" He shot back, a blast of concussive force ripping through the next set of doors. Jean flew above him as he raced into the next room.

"I'm a big girl," The redhead snapped, forming up another shield around the two. "I can handle the truth."

"Fine then...." Scott's voice slowly faded as they raced through the massive underground network beneath the mansion, the sounds of further combat quickly overwhelming whatever words either one said.

In their haste, and distracted by their argument, neither noticed had the smoking mechanical carcass of another robot next to the wall, piled up with the varied remains of a dozen pieces of automated weaponry.

They had also failed to look up, where they would have seen Risty clinging to the ceiling.

Dropping to the floor after making certain the coast was clear, the British girl sighed in relief. "Thank you, Genma," Checking her pockets quickly, the purple-haired girl shot a rude gesture at the remains of the robot and glanced in the direction Scott and Jean had run off in. Snapping her gaze back to where they had entered, Risty grinned to herself and ran through the newly-created exit.

Her footsteps echoing down the corridor as she ran, Rogue tried not to worry about Ranma alone in the Danger Room. She also tried desperately not to think about how deadly Sabretooth could be, especially in confined, close-quarters combat. It went without saying that she was ignoring all thoughts about both of those things combined with the high-tech training facilities safety protocols being disabled.

"Vhere are ve going?" Nightcrawler asked from above; the blue furred boy was easily keeping pace, running on all fours along the ceiling.

"Ah don't know," She admitted, her mind racing as she tried to determine from where the mystery attacker could be controlling everything. Several multi-pronged metal rods shot out of the walls ahead of them, and all four skidded to a stop. "Scratch that," Rogue amended, grabbing Shadowcat and racing in the other direction as flames began to shoot out from over two dozen sparking ignitors. "We're goin' th'other way!"

Their escape was blocked form the other end by another rapidly-approaching coil of flame. Being assaulted from both ends of the corridor, Nightcrawler dropped from the ceiling and grabbed onto Spyke, teleporting the pair away as Shadowcat pulled Rogue with her through the wall.

A feral smirk stretched 'Sabretooth's' ugly mug, and Ranma was almost certain his own face mirrored the expression. He couldn't help it – despite the pain, despite the severity of the situation, despite the danger he and his friends were in, the pigtailed boy was enjoying this fight.

If only the real Sabretooth were capable of pushing him this hard. Ranma could feel his muscles burning, and an eagerness to take it farther. Forcing himself to temper the feeling – he was trying to keep the controller distracted, and beating 'Sabretooth' would work against that idea. Although, with the safeties currently disabled, Ranma wasn't sure if the solid-light berserker even could be defeated through conventional means.

Holograms had no ki, so the Hiryu Shoten Ha was definitely out. And the Amazon technique was the only one Ranma could think of that would destroy the false Sabretooth – well, destroy the thousands of solid-light imagers throughout the room, but it was really the same thing.

Pulling back and firing a small blast of confidence-fueled ki, he launched himself past the attack and to the other side of his foe. Striking him in the back with a pair of open-hand strikes propelled 'Sabretooth' directly into the ki. Pausing for a moment as his foe howled angrily, Ranma considered the attack he'd just used; simple, effective, but had a few bugs that needed to be worked out.

Shaking his head as his vision suddenly blurred, Ranma barely managed to duck under a savage swipe, striking 'Sabretooth' in the stomach with an upward kick. Another swipe of the claws caught him in the back, tearing open his flesh again and turning his back into a macabre checkerboard of blood. "Dammit," Ranma muttered, pressing his open palms against the hologram's abdomen and blasting him with a point-blank Moko Takabisha.

Flipping back as 'Sabretooth' was flung to the other end of the cage, Ranma hissed at the pain in his back, pushing a fraction of his ki towards healing his wounds. Meeting the next charge head-on, Ranma unleashed a flurry of blows, blocking those he could and taking damage from those he couldn't. His ki surged, and the pigtailed youth paused involuntarily as he felt a strange feeling. A strange feeling that was accompanied by a slash on his arm, tearing the sleeve of his uniform off and coating his biceps with blood.

Shaking both sensations off, Ranma glanced upward at the open ceiling above. "Alright," he muttered, grabbing 'Sabretooth' by the wrist and throwing him over the wall. "I'm sick of this room an' everyone in it!"

Leaping to the top of the wall, Ranma grinned as he saw 'Sabretooth' impaled on a set of large spike sticking up from the floor. The spikes immediately retracted, and the hologram rose to his feet, his wounds already healing – not that they would have had any real effect had they lingered. The hologram couldn't feel pain, after all. Dropping to the ground, Ranma got into a ready position, grinning and gesturing for 'Sabretooth' – and his controller – to bring it on.

"Oh, you did not!" Arcade screamed, his fingers flying across the keyboards. "That was a dirty trick," he growled, "Just for that..."

The computer geek's grin grew malicious as the high-pressure hose blasted the AI back in a raging torrent of water. His cursor moving to an electrical weapon, Arcade's finger slipped as he saw a new figure emerge from the assault. "Woah," He blinked. "Dude turns into a chick?"

"...and yeah," Cyclops said, sliding around a corner and stopping at the first door he found. "I guess that about sums it up."

"I see," Jean said, her smile a little shaky; the brown-haired boy felt a twinge of guilt, but resisted it. Her smile grew brighter and more confident, and with a wave of her hand she forced the door open and floated inside, slowly descending to the ground. "Doesn't it feel good to get that off your chest?"

"Actually," The boy mused, blasting the lone autocannon in the room, "Yeah, I do feel a bit better."

Scanning the room for any more potential threats, Cyclops watched as the redhead began typing furiously on a nearby console. He could see 'Access Denied' flash across the screen several times before Jean threw her hands up in frustration.

"It's no use," She declared. "I'm completely locked out. Control of every system in the network has been diverted to one room." She glanced up at him, worry and anger fighting a duel across her features. "Cerebro."

Moving to a larger terminal set against the wall, Cyclops took a chance and bypassed the main computer network and patching directly into the mansion's security system. Cycling through the cameras, he stopped upon reaching one of the many inside Cerebro. "Hey," he said, seeing a small figure standing at the access terminal of the mutant-detection device. "Who's that guy?"

"Hey, I know that guy!" Shadowcat said, phasing through the wall alongside Rogue; at the same moment Nightcrawler and Spyke bamfed into the other side of the room. All four flinched back at the accusatory stares directed back at them. "He, uh, calls himself 'Arcade'. He's a computer game nut!"

"A party guest, I assume?" Jean said accusingly, crossing her arms over her chest.

Spyke rolled his eyes and Rogue snorted, shooting a glare at the redhead, who flinched back at the goth girl's cold gaze. "Please," She waved her off dismissively. "Don't act as if ya have any authority."

"Knock it off," Cyclops ordered, looking back at the screen. Shifting cameras, he got a close-up view of a red-haired boy with glasses, wearing Cerebro's primary access helmet. "So that's the guy... Where's Ranma?"

"Danger Room," Rogue replied, giving Jean another baleful stare before turning her attention back to the current situation. "Fightin' a fake Sabretooth that geek is controllin'."

"You left him alone?"

"He told us to," Spyke insisted.

With wide eyes, Arcade zoomed in on the redheaded girl that had replaced the dark-haired boy. Aside from hair colour and obvious gender differences, they looked about the same – the lack of a profile for the female solidified the belief that this was the same character, just with a different form. Although what turning female would do for the AI was beyond him.

Brushing away some drool that had formed on the corner of his mouth, Arcade grinned lecherously and zoomed in closer, surprising both himself and the AI when the camera literally hit the girl in the face. "I can attack with the camera?" He muttered, watching the redhead's expression twist from surprise to anger.

"Alright," Ranma muttered, squeezing the water out of her hair and throwing the spherical machine to the side. "The hell with distractin' ya. No more Mr... uh... Ms. Nice... Girl."

The 'Sabretooth' hologram was standing motionlessly several yards away, apparently awaiting further instruction from it's controller. Based on the actions of the floating camera, Ranma could easily guess what the mystery operator had been distracted by. Pervert.

Cracking her neck, Ranma, following one of the prime tenets of Anything-Goes, took advantage of the momentarily motionless hologram and leapt into action, nailing him with a flying kick to the chest. She had to give the controller credit when 'Sabretooth' immediately snapped back into action, grabbing at her leg in a tight hold; Ranma used the move against him, smashing her heel into the side of his head with enough force to knock him to the ground. Wrenching her leg out of his claws, she hissed at the claw marks that had punctured her shin and delivered a right hook to his face.

Using 'Sabretooth' as a launch pad, the pigtailed redhead vaulted away, a devious smirk coming over her face as she surged her ki. This guy wasn't real; he didn't feel any pain, and essentially existed only as long as the Danger Room could sustain his form.

Surrounded by a bright blue corona, she turned back to her computerized opponent, directing the flow of internal energy in a specific manner. "I ain't had a chance to try this out on anyone yet, Ugly," She grinned, "But I don't gotta pull any punches with ya, do I?"

'Sabretooth' only snarled in response, bursting forward in yet another headlong charge. "That's right," Ranma whispered, dipping into her reserves as she poured more power into her muscles; this technique was going to take a lot of energy. "Run straight inta th'grinder..."

'Sabretooth' was approximately two feet away when Ranma suddenly blurred into motion. She didn't normally shout the names of her attacks, having managed to break herself of the habit, but it felt proper in this case. "Katchu Tenshin Amaguriken Revised: SLAM DANCE!"

Ranma's aura exploded in a blinding flash of blue, and she began tearing through 'Sabretooth' like wet tissue paper. Hundred upon hundreds of kicks, punches, and even a few head-butts pummeled the construct, her entire body moving at Amaguriken-speed, a dance savage to the point of grace nearly invisible to the naked eye.

Seven seconds later, Ranma came to a rest, breathing heavily through a delighted grin; she hadn't been entirely sure that would work. Throwing hundreds of punches with the Chestnut-Fist was easy, kicks being only a little more difficult, but moving her entire body at that speed was something else entirely. She lifted a hand to her head as a wave of dizziness came over her, then jerked it away as she noticed she was holding 'Sabretooth's' severed arm.

"Woah," She said intelligently, tossing the fading limb to the side; all around her the remains of the hologram were fading way, leaving only the pieces of the robot the image had been mapped upon. "Little too much power...need t'work on the coor-coordi-dynamics... kinda dizzy..." She giggled as tiny motes of light flew through her peripheral vision. "This is kinda cool...

Arcade's mouth dropped open. "Best. Finishing. Move. EVER!"

Another thought occurred to him seconds later, and he slammed his fist against the console, slumping back in his chair. "Dammit!" He growled, "I lost!" He grinned suddenly, staring again at the staggering redhead. "It was so worth it though!"

Scrolling through the other screens of the game, Arcade suddenly realized that he'd let the other characters manage to get away. Where they'd managed to get away to, he wasn't sure, but he desperately hoped they weren't on the next level. His failure to beat the pigtailed boss meant he'd be stuck on this stage of the game for a while.

His head suddenly snapped up, eyes growing wide. "He was DISTRACTING me!" He exclaimed, his jaw dropping at the idea of such an advanced AI. "It all makes sense now, he was distracting me while the other characters did... something else." He leaned in closer to the screen, shifting camera views with computer-geek speed. "C'mon, where are you? What are you planning? All my base are not belong to you if Arcade have anything to say about it!"

"Corridor, empty. Medical Lab, empty. Hanger, empty," Arcade's ire quickly reached it's peak as each successive camera view failed to reveal his errant opponents. "Where are you hiding?" He growled, his fingers flying across the keyboards. "Ah-ha" He cried out, pumping his fist in triumph. "There you... are?"

Blinking, he moved his arm up and down slowly, watching dumbfounded as the small figure on the screen copied his actions. Waving his other arm, the small figure on the screen again followed suit. "Sweet 8-Bit Jesus, I'm in the game!"

Overwhelmed by the utter überness of this mainframe, Arcade barely noticed the two suddenly appearing behind him. "They were after me?" He said slowly, watching the blue-furred character and the pale vampire chick running towards 'him'. "Man... this game is beyond awesome."

Arcade felt a featherlight touch on his neck, followed by three-point-seven seconds of agony beyond which he'd ever experienced, accompanied by a voice unfamiliar in sound but not in phrasing: "An' y'all ain't nothin' but a noob..."

He could hear the smirk in the last word, mere seconds before his world went black. "Pwned."

"I've found you a new instructor."

"Lemme guess," Pietro said, tearing his eyes away from the special Sci-Fi presentation of Rampage II: Return of the Killdozer to flash her a wry smirk. "That guy who's been campin' in the back yard is gonna be our new 'sensei'."

"As perceptive as ever, Maximoff," Nabiki drawled, her expression betraying nothing. Doubtless the silver-haired boy's father had already been informed of the Lost Boy's presence at the house, and the odds were equally good that Pietro would deliver this new development as well. Something definitely had to be done about the double-agent in their midst, but the cyberpath was uncharacteristically bereft of ideas. "Yes, Ryoga will be taking up your training, and you will be assisting in his if he wishes, for as long as I'm able to keep him here."

"Wait," Freddy said, scratching his head as the rest of the Brotherhood digested the information, "Isn't he that guy?"

"Depends on who 'that guy' is, Freddykins."

"He means that guy that Ranma was fighting at that stupid camp," Lance answered for his larger friend, grabbing a fistful of potato chips out of the bowl in his lap. "And he is, which is makin' me wonder if training under him is such a good idea."

"Now Lance, do you doubt my leadership?" Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Did you think I would find someone utterly incapable as an instructor? Ryoga is a skilled and dedicated martial artist, as well as a mutant. There will be no need to hide anything from him that you would have to with a normal sensei."

"That ain't what I'm worried about."

"Didn't he put Ranma in a coma or sumthin'?" Todd broke in lazily, his attention obviously focused more on Fairchild Voodoo's licentious advances on a bound and gagged Agent Throatpunch.

"It was only four days. More like a long nap."

"Ain't that either," Lance shook his head, meeting Nabiki's gaze as the movie went to a commercial. "So far, we been trained by Mystique, your father, and very briefly by that panda. Won't adding a completely different style mess us up or something?"

"Not to mention my months of training under Ranma," Tabitha interjected from her seat on the stairs; the piglet in her lap suddenly looked at her with an astonished expression.

Nabiki's lips quirked into an almost imperceptible frown; she hadn't considered that. "First of all," She said after a moments consideration, "All three of your previous teachers were masters of Anything-Goes, and by virtue of the nature of the style, integrating Ryoga's training shouldn't be too difficult." At least, that was how she remembered it. She'd stopped training when she'd turned seven or so, but she could still remember the basics of the school. At the very least, she was pretty certain her housemates hadn't been taught anything that Ryoga's style would directly contradict.

"Second of all," Her smirk returned to her face as she regarded Tabitha, who was cooing incoherently to the 'pig' in her arms. "Who said anything about you training with them?"

"What?" The blonde whined, dropping her pet unceremoniously to her lap. "Why not? I wanna learn from the cutie too!"

"I contracted him to train my team," Nabiki said simply, feeling a slight buzzing in her mind as the house's small security network alerted her to someone approaching their door. "You are a boarder, and technically not part of the team. Obviously, you can put two and two together from there."

The doorbell rang at that moment, the opening theme to CSI: Edinburgh set to bells filling the house. Lance grumbled and stood up, blinking in surprise as Nabiki gestured for him to remain seated and strode to her door herself.

"Huh?" She heard Lance mutter to Pietro. "She never answers the door..."

"Must be the bitch."

"She just went to answer the door."

"No, I mean the bitch we don't like."

"You boys are so sweet," She called out over her shoulder, meaning every word of it but loving the uncomfortable way in which they squirmed. It was good to keep them on their toes. Her expression shifted instantly upon opening the door, her cool brown eyes regarding the smirking form of Emma Frost, lit by the small porch light above her head. "Ms. Frost!" She exclaimed with a plastic smile. "What brings you here so late?"

"Oh, I just happened to be in the neighbourhood," Emma said with a casual indifference, the cap she wore on her head casting a shadow over her eyes, "And thought it might be nice to drop in for a moment. I was so upset that our earlier chat had to end prematurely, Ms. Tendo."

"Oh?" Her eyebrow raised, Nabiki once again reached out with her mind, inwardly frowning as her mental scan slid around the other woman's thoughts yet again. She hated the naturally resistant. "This wouldn't have something to do with the mistaken delivery, would it? I have spent the last hour trying to track down the owner, to no avail."

The blonde girl laughed. "Ms. Tendo, I assure you there is no longer any need to worry about that. I have already procured another case of the item within that package, enough to not have to worry about it again for some time." Her smirk grew. "I even thought to obtain an additional supply, on the highly-likely chance little Donnatella is again taken the whim to play at being a skunk."

"Children are so precious, are they not Ms. Frost?"

"I could not agree more, Ms. Tendo," Emma said with a smile that set the mercenary on edge. "Anyway, the reason I'm here is I wished to deliver something to you." She reached into her purse and pulled out a few sheets of paper, stapled together in the upper-left hand corner.

Lifting the paper to her eyes, Nabiki skimmed it quickly, easily recognizing it as a homework assignment and answer sheet from Hank McCoy's Chemistry class. One she had sold to Melinda Frost for the inflated price of forty-five dollars. "I'm afraid I do not have Mr. McCoy as a teacher," She said calmly. "Nor am I taking a Chemistry class this semester."

"I would be surprised if you were," Emma said, crossing her arms casually over her simple white shirt. "An intelligent young woman like yourself, in a sophomore-level class. No, I just wished to return that to you. It would be a simply terrible shame if it fell into the hands of someone less, shall we say, amenable than myself."

"My deepest thanks, Ms. Frost," Nabiki said coolly, neatly folding the papers and slipping them into her pocket. She knew a threat when she heard one. "Is there any way that I might be able to repay you for this kindness? Perhaps I could check the label on the package again – it might be that your current address does match the one it was intended to be shipped to."

"I hardly think that is necessary," Emma replied with a nonchalant wave. "In fact, you might want to keep it for yourself. It is a truly exquisite item, and quite expensive, but I would beg of you not to reveal my little indulgence to others." She smirked again. "A girl has to retain her mystery, after all."

"While I'm certain it is not to my tastes, I thank you for the gift," Nabiki's hand came to rest on the doorframe, and with an exaggerated yawn she took a half-step inside. "I'm afraid I must be off for the night, however. I have a very full day planned tomorrow, and it would be simply terrible if I were not well-rested."

"No need at all to apologize, Ms. Tendo, I understand completely. I should be turning in myself, as a matter of fact." The blonde girl flashed her a smile of concealed triumph as she turned away, and Nabiki's eyes narrowed momentarily. "Enjoy your outing with Mr. Summers tomorrow. One never knows when they'll next have the opportunity to enjoy the company of a dashing young gentleman."

"Have a pleasant night, Ms. Frost," Nabiki said, her voice dripping with honey as she shut the door behind her. Turning around, her housemates were frozen to the floor by her gaze.

"Did," Todd swallowed, flinching as Nabiki's expressionless stare spun towards him. "Did you just.... lose?"

The middle Tendo said nothing, her gaze slowly drifting from one housemate to the other. Stepping forward after several minutes of silence, they parted easily from her path, and with a yawn she turned and headed up the stairs. "Training starts at six am. Be there, and be sure to ask Ryoga what will happen if you wake me up."

Once out of sight, Nabiki's eyes narrowed to thin slit. Ms. Frost had played the wrong card; threats against herself she could deal with. Threats against her friends she could handle.

But you did not threaten the business.

"Father, have you seen my shopping basket?"

Shaking his head, Soun inhaled a final drag on his cigarettes and stubbed it out in the ashtray in the center of the table. Staring up at his eldest daughter, his mind went back to the previous night, and he felt tears of pride begin to form in his eyes. Blinking them back, he stood up, folding the paper in his hands and setting it on the table. Walking over to the kitchen, he looked inside, oddly pleased to see the new toaster sitting next to the blender his late wife had made.

Spotting his daughter rummaging through the pantry in search of her missing basket, Soun cleared his throat. "Kasumi?"

"We're almost out of soy sauce, father!" She exclaimed, "I also heard a rumour about half-price live eels at Kuniyoshi-san's stand, but I can't find my bas-"

"Calm down, Kasumi," He chuckled. "Genma is out doing the shopping."

"Uncle Saotome?" The girl stepped out of the pantry and cocked her head to the side in confusion. "But.... oh my, does he know about the eels?"

"Saotome will find everything we need, and then some, at the cheapest possible price," Assuming he didn't steal it; Soun didn't voice that thought aloud. "I asked him to, so I could have some time to speak with you." He gestured towards the door and Kasumi followed him, a curious expression on her face.

Several minutes later, the father and daughter were walking down the street, side-by-side. Soun had yet to say a word. His daughter shot him curious glances every so often, interspersed with polite greetings exchanged with people on the street. He used this time to gather his thoughts, searching for the exact right words to say.

"Father?" She asked finally, twisting the strings of her apron around her fingers. "Does this have anything to do with Reiko-san's offer?"

"It does," He admitted, flashing her a kind smile. "Have you made a decision yet?"

"I still don't know," Kasumi said softly, looking away. "It came so sudden, I honestly can't believe they're serious. I'm only a student..."

"They appeared quite sincere to me," He said, pausing for a moment. "I didn't understand most of what they said, partly due to the language barrier and partly because of the topic itself, but they seem genuinely impressed by you."

"Still," His eldest daughter said, biting at her lower lip. "I shouldn't accept. The family-"

"Kasumi," He interrupted, surprising even himself. "Tell me, do YOU want to take the job?"

"I can't-"

"I'm not asking about what the family wants," Soun shook his head, feeling another surge of prideful tears at the girl's dedication. Now was not the time, however. "I'm asking what YOU want. You have spent so many years caring for this family, giving up what dreams you may have held. I was lost in my grief for so long, I didn't even notice it until recently."

"Father," Kasumi said softly. Soun held up a hand, shaking his head in a silent request that she let him continue.

"You have a gift, Kasumi-chan," He told her. "One that had I not been consumed in my own sadness might have been discovered and properly nurtured. I failed as a father in that regard, but I will not this time. Answer me honestly - do you want to take this opportunity?"

"Yes," Kasumi said softly, her head moving in an almost imperceptible nod. "I do."

Soun smiled; he had seen it in her eyes the previous night, when Doctor Watanabe and Doctor Ryan had laid out the details of the offer. In addition to a very nice salary and a place to stay (Ms. Watanabe had a condo in Boston she was willing to share), Kasumi would have access to equipment, information, and technology out of reach for the normal population. Her eagerness couldn't be hidden, and Soun was almost certain a good amount of it came from the idea of the project itself. Perfecting a machine like this could do wonders for medicine, and would no doubt help save lives.

A machine like this might have saved her mother's life, had it been around at the time.

Stopping, Soun glanced up, then turned to his daughter. "Then I urge you to accept it," He said, his voice threatening to crack; he would miss her presence around the house, but it filled him with no small amount of pride that his eldest was being offered this chance. "You have sacrificed more than your fair share for this family. Don't worry, we can take care of ourselves from here."

The Tendo patriarch stumbled back as Kasumi suddenly tackled him in a bone-crushing hug. Tears streamed down her face, mixing with her smile as she mumbled enthusiastic thank-yous against his shoulder, and Soun felt several tears squeeze out from his own eyes.

Several minutes passed before Kasumi suddenly pulled away from him, wiping the tears from her face. "I have so much to do," She murmured to herself, and Soun could see her eyes glaze over as she began making verbal plans for packing and preparation for moving to the United States. "I have to call Watanabe-san!"

"That can wait," He told her, grasping her wrist gently as she turned to race back home. "First, I have something for you," He smiled and gestured to the large brick building across the street.

"Mick's Independent Service Center?" Kasumi read the large sign that stretched over the doorway. Cocking her head to the side, she shot him a questioning glance. With an anticipatory grin, Soun walked past the entrance and down an alleyway, separating the building from the one next to it. Stopping in front of a simple door marked 'Employee's Only', Soun ignored the sign and pushed it open, the smell of metal and grease immediately assaulting his senses. Stepping inside, he held the door open for Kasumi.

The large room looked like a typical auto repair garage; white walls covered in posters of cars and motorcycles leading up to a very high ceiling, from which several bright florescent lights hung. The floor was solid concrete, and covered with dirty rags, discarded tools and oil stains. A workbench was set up against the far wall, next to a large object covered by a dark blue tarp, above which hung a single, silver wrench affixed to a plaque with a description he was too far away to read – not that he needed to; he knew the inscription by heart.

"That door is fer employee's only." A bored voice drawled, drawing the attention of both father and daughter to the center of the room, where a bright blue Honda with it's hood popped open rested several feet off the ground, supported by a set of hydraulic jacks. A pair of legs stuck out from underneath the car, next to an open drawer filled with tools. "So unless yer name is Aizawa and ya finally got back wit' th'sandwiches, I'm gonna be pissed."

Soun rolled his eyes and walked over to the owner of the voice, giving the leg a friendly kick. "It's me, Watai."

"Tendo?" The voice echoed, sliding out from under the vehicle and revealing a grease-covered man his a few years older than him wearing coveralls. A black bandana was wrapped around his head, under which several strands of dark blonde hair could be seen poking out. "Tendo!" He exclaimed, a wide smile coming over his hard features. Dropping his wrench to the floor, the man jumped to his feet and grabbed Soun's hand with his own, clasping it excitedly. "Damn was I s'prised t'get yer call this mornin'! How long it been, five, six years?"

"Five months."

The man's attention immediately shifted to Kasumi, who stared at him with a spark of familiarity. "Don't tell me," He said, wiping the grease off his hands with a ratty blue rag. "This has ta be Kasumi-chan!"

Kasumi nodded politely, a soft smile gracing her lips.

"Ha!" Watai laughed, slapping Soun on the back and tossing the rag over his shoulder. "I haven't seen ya since you were this high!" He held a hand level with his knee and stared at her expectantly.

"Uncle Michio?" The young woman said hesitantly, recognition suddenly flashing across her face. Laughing, she leapt into his arms, not even noticing the grease stains his fingers left on the back of her dress. "I haven't seen you since..." She trailed off.

Watai's expression turned somber, and he nodded silently. "I know," He said, releasing the girl and smiling faintly. "You look just like her, and already I can tell she woulda been proud of ya.

"So what brings ya here?" He asked, turning back to Soun.

"A gift for my daughter," Soun replied, chuckling nervously; Michio Watai ('Mick' to most) wasn't actually related to the family in any way, but he'd worked here since Kimiko's father had been the owner, and had known his late wife longer than even Soun had. "You do still have what I asked about, right?"

Watai snorted and pushed aside the tool cabinet, leading them over to the large tarp next to the workbench. "Course I do," He said, taking hold of the heavy canvas and pulling it off, revealing a two-tone motorcycle, gleaming navy blue body with pure white trim. "I give her a full check up every coupla weeks. Still purrs like a kitten."

"A Suzuki GSX-R600..." Kasumi's eyes grew wide, taking in the sight of the middleweight sport-bike. "It looks just like mother's..."

"It is yer mom's, kid," Watai grinned, giving the girl an approving nod. "Ya gotta good eye or a good memory. She used t'take ya out on it all th'time before she passed."

"I remember that..." The girl replied absently, her eyes skimming over the sleek machine.

Reaching into his pocket, Soun removed a small object and gently placed it in Kasumi's hand, pulling her attention away from the bike. Looking down, she blinked upon seeing a simple silver key attached to a small wrench-shaped keyring. "Father..."

"It's yours now," Soun smiled again, stepping back and shrugging. "I thought you might be able to use it in America."

"I've never ridden before," Kasumi murmured, slowly walking over and laying a quivering hand on the navy blue fuel tank.

"I can give ya some lesson's before ya leave," Watai offered, and Kasumi nodded silently, still examining the heavily modified sport bike. "Motorcycle licenses are a bit easier t'get over in th'States."

Stepping away and leaving Kasumi to get further acquainted to her late mother's beloved Suzuki, Soun let his eyes drift over to the wrench mounted on the wall not too far away, skimming over the small bronze plate attached below the tool. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Watai stepping next to him.

"She used t'hit me with that damn thing all th'time," The mechanic said softly. "Usually when I screwed up on an important job." He chuckled. "Kasumi-chan seems happy with yer gift."

"I knew she would be," Soun replied, a silent tear running down his cheek. "Like I told you..."

Watai nodded, finishing the other man's statement. "...She's just like her mother."

The two men were silent for a minute before Watai belatedly added, "Except, y'know, without the, uh..."

"Colourful vocabulary?"

"That's an understatement," Watai snorted, smacking Soun on the back again with a hearty laugh. "Did I ever tell ya 'bout the time Kimiko..."

"Great party! You guys rock!"

Watching the two satisfied guests depart from the mansion grounds in a squeal of rubber against asphalt, Evan plastered on a smile that failed to reach his eyes. "Yeah, thanks, glad you had fun," He said through grit teeth. "I mean, we missed it, but hey at least you had fun..."

"They ate every last scrap of food," Kurt sniffled, staring with dismay at the empty plate in his hands.

"And completely trashed the place," Kitty added with a sigh, glancing back inside. The guests had stayed in the designated party areas for the most part, but those few rooms now looked to have been caught in no less than three natural disasters.

"And guess who gets t'clean it all up?" An enthusiastic voice chimed in behind them; all three teenagers winced, slowly turning around to see Ranma standing in the doorway, his arms filled with an assortment of cleaning supplies. His face was scratched up and heavily bruised, but otherwise the pigtailed boy looked to be no worse for the wear – if one discounted the multiple gouges peeking out from under his black muscle shirt.

"That's right," Ranma said with a grin, tossing a mop at Kurt, who reflexively caught it with his free hand. "You three have been granted this highest of honours. Give yourselves a round of applause."

"Uh," Kitty grinned weakly, catching the bottle of Windex and rag tossed to her. "X-Men are best when they, like, work together, right?"

"I agree," Ranma said, turning back and walking lethargically back into the house, limping slightly on his right leg. "You three are X-Men. Work together. I'll supervise."

A chorus of pitiful groans sounded from the trio as they followed him inside. Ranma shot them a smirk over his shoulder. "It won't be that bad," He said cheerfully, "Think of it as.... trainin'."

They groaned even louder, the sounds of frustration mixing with the apologetic sighs from the red-haired boy sitting on the stairs of the main foyer. Stepping up next to Rogue as his three charges began their task, Ranma leaned against the banister, absently rubbing his shoulder while shooting Arcade an annoyed frown.

"Ugh," The computer geek didn't notice the look, his head held in his hands. "I'm really sorry, guys," He apologized, wincing as his eyes met Scott's. "I just couldn't help myself."

"Mind telling us what you were doing in there in the first place?" Scott asked, staring down suspiciously at the boy.

"Can you blame me?" Arcade said excitedly, a manic grin coming over his face. "Such an awesome mainframe, man. And that game totally rocked!"

Shocked glances were rapidly exchanged among the four X-Men. "Game?" Jean repeated.

"The graphics were the best I've ever seen!" He exclaimed, pausing to brush aside some drool. "And the characters! They had these awesome powers, and that pigtailed boss, oh man!"

"Boss?" Ranma echoed, raising an eyebrow.

"Had to be a boss," Arcade insisted. "Too powerful to be a regular enemy. Dunno why he turned into a girl for his finishing move, or why such a strong character had a sissy little pigtail..."

"Sissy?" Ranma bristled.

"Wait, hold on," Rogue broke in, looking at him incredulously. "Ya think it-"

'He does not know what he truly experienced,' The doors swung open as the familiar voice sounded in their minds. Xavier rolled into the room, giving each of his students a pointed look. 'He is convinced it was all a computer game.'

"Mr. Torque," The Professor said aloud. "There is a taxi outside waiting to take you home."

"Hey, thanks," Arcade said, hitching his bag over his shoulder as he stood up, chuckling nervously as he walked out of the mansion. "I passed out from the sheer awesomeness of that game and, uh, can't remember who brought me here..."

"I'm sorry professor," Scott said with a downcast expression as the cab drove out the gates. "I accept the blame for this."

"I think there is plenty of blame to go around," Xavier replied calmly, "Even extending to our mystery guest."

"That guy with the stupid name?" Ranma asked, wincing in pain as he lifted his arm to scratch his head.

"Y'know Arcade was justa nickname, right?"

"I mean his real name," Ranma replied with a snort. "Seriously, who names their kid 'Webber Torque'?"

"No, not Mr. Torque," Xavier said, guiding his chair forward a few feet as Rogue elbowed her boyfriend in the stomach. "Someone else. Someone who had a hand in all of this, even to the point of sabotaging Cain's prison to ensure that I would be away, all in an effort to get inside mansion."

"Do you have any idea who it was?" Jean asked, sharing a quick glance with Scott.

"Unfortunately no," Xavier shook his head, frowning as he considered the numerous possibilities. There were a good many people who would love nothing more than to access the Institute. An even more pressing matter is what they did while here; did they take something, or leave something? "Nor can I determine, as of yet, what their goals might have been."

Giving the mansion a final glance over her shoulder, Risty smirked to herself and leapt from the top of the gate. Landing on her feet, the purple-haired girl stood up straight, her smile growing wider. "It's been a good day," She whispered to herself.

Reaching into her pocket, she delicately removed the disc burned with the file of every mutant Cerebro had ever discovered. With her other hand she took out the unsealed Umisenken. Musing over the unexpected events of the day, Risty again affirmed to herself that going through with the Arcade plan was the right thing to do; admittedly, she could have waited until she'd mastered the Umi and taken care of it herself, but too much work had been put into getting Xavier out of the Institute. Combined with the incredibly fortunate absences of Storm, Wolverine and the medic... well, how could such an opportunity be ignored?

"Yes," She whispered again slipping the two precious items back into her pockets and quietly walking off into the woods. A slow ripple ran along her body and the British girl gained nearly sixteen inches in height, her clothes shifting into a tight leather crop top and a tight leather miniskirt. Her skin shifted to a deep blue and her hair a flaming red. She grinned, her elongated canines brushing against her lower lip. "It's been a very good day."

"Well, now who have we here?" A raspy, high-pitched voice intruded.

Spinning around, Mystique's yellow eyes grew wide as she spotted the diminutive form perched in a tree above, calmly puffing away at an ornate long-stemmed pipe. "Karasu panpan!" She growled, firing off a small ki blast at the - unfortunately - familiar figure.

With a snort the figure brushed aside the attack, letting it dissipate into the air as he tossed it behind him. Dropping from the tree, the gnomish man swatted the shapeshifter over the head with his pipe.

"Insolent girl" He snapped with more affection than actual malice. "Is that anyway to greet your great-grandfather?"


Author's Notes: The rating for the fic has been reduced to 'T', since I have determined that nothing as of yet, except maybe the language and the slightly limish scene several chapters ago really necessitates the previous 'M' rating. This will change, however, in three or four chapters...

Finally managed to get this monster done. Longest chapter yet, coming in at nearly 42,000 words. As much as I love long chapters, I'm going to make a concentrated effort to make the next one not quite so long. This will prove somewhat easier, as Kasumi's storyline will be slowing down for a few chapters. Speaking of Kasumi, I'm willing to admit that half the reason I gave her a motorcycle has to do with my desire to portray her in skin-tight leather. And if you think she won't be able to learn how to ride it absurdly quickly, you have not been paying attention.

There was a reference to a Honousenken attack in this chapter. And no, I'm not going to tell you what the 'Tearing Curtain Scorching Reality Burn' is.

Originally, Arcade was going to pick Juggernaut as a character to play with, but I came to the conclusion that Juggernaut + Danger Room safeties disabled + other Danger Room hazards + no psychic in the fight + a guy controlling everything who thinks it's just a game and therefore has no restraint = overkill. Instead, I went with Sabretooth, who I figured, with everything above (as well as forced close-quarter's combat) would be a pretty decent challenge.

I try to research all science and technology that is talked about in any detail, but the subjects are far from my forte. As such, I might be wrong about some things, and others might be outright made up. If you spot a crucial mistake in regards to any subject, please feel free to correct me, and I'll do what I can to fix it.

Before I forget, Thaliá is now taking requests! Suggest a song you'd like to see my favourite mysterious little mental patient sing, and if it's something she actually likes (Thaliá has very eclectic tastes) it'll become the song she sings in a future chapter. And you may as well suggest something, since Thaliá's gonna sing in every chapter she appears in. It's in her contract. A word of warning: suggest nothing by U2. Thaliá has an unexplainable, unrelenting psychological hatred of Bono.

That's all for now. Thanks as always to my pre-readers. I hope you enjoyed it, and please review!