The Bauers, Isabel Mendez, Emilio Suarez, I-Ping Soong and Tham Kriengchayapruk belong to me. Jason Auspach technically belongs to Marvel, but I supplied the surname. All other characters belong to Marvel. I'm not profiting by this.

Comments go to Flames will be blithely ignored.

Minute Change

Part 18

Karolina Phillips



A bright computer screen backlit several apparati hanging from the walls and ceiling of the Ready Room, popularly dubbed the War Room, as the central monitor whined steadily over the sound of human breath. It filled the room, barely noticed, an innocuous white nose. A square ventilation shaft wound its way out through a wall and across the room, pumping air down into the subterranean space. Tucked beside it was a sheaf of fiber optic and electrical cables that supported the computer equipment.

"Why is she unconscious?"

"She's drugged."


"I did." The answer was followed by an uncertain pause. "She was unstable."

Something.... There was the haze again, but no. It must be the flickering shadows cast by the monitor. She tried to loll her head down, away from the lights and shadows. She was fairly certain it must be a monitor, unless the aqua green glow was caused by a mutant using energy expulsive abilities. Or perhaps it was a bright blue sky as seen through overly shiny glass. Perhaps it was the icy glare of an inhumanly hot fire burning away oxygen in a flash, sucking it straight out of human lungs. But fire was a silence followed by a roar and the noise creeping through the room was a insectoid hum.

She wished they would shut up.

Lying down like an obedient dog. The idea made her sick. Mommy's good little girl. She stopped trying to fight the opiates. Hank probably thought she did not know what he had used but she remembered drunken nights in Hong Kong. She remembered wild darkness. They were still talking but she remembered hunting, always searching for something out of her reach in those alleys like hedge mazes. They were filled with smells of life, food, waste and grime. They had so many smells it became a miasma. She had woven her way through the back streets of Hong Kong in the nights, oblivious to danger from the modern lords. She had known that whatever came to pass, she could become whoever she needed to be, whenever she needed to be. Besides, Soong had always followed her.

"She knows what she's doing, Scott," reassured a cultured British voice.

"I know," he gritted out.

Rogue heard a heeled tread click past her and the soft sounds of metal springs, a slight creak of plastic. Those footsteps were quiet, yet firm, those of someone accustomed to obstacles moving aside. And - A muffled voice within her murmured, "Jean". Rogue sighed. Drowsily, she wondered if she ought to warn the telepath. Of course, she could not so she lay back in the skittered sounds of tall grass. It was too late for them to believe that the gray shadow they saw was truly a wolf and not an empty cry.

She wondered if she smiled externally. To her right, she could hear whispering cloth, the barest flutter of a sash or scarf. She could smell an oil-based perfume. Behind her was the smell of fur. To her left was the occasional creak of leather moving against cloth and metal. They thought they were stalking her but she was up the grandfather tree watching them circle in the grass.

The lead male moved in closer and she knew where he was without needing to move. Motion. She idly reached out with the thought of grabbing a beating heart. The beating turned into a murmur, then into a soft growl. He only needed to be a little bit closer and all it would talk was a swift strike, a snap of claws and the tearing of an invisible barrier. The lazy thought crossed here mind that she should not poach, that Jean would be angry, but he was the one getting in her space.

Hank sidled around Scott to peer at Jean. Her head was bowed, Cerebro crushing her down in a tangled mass of of wires and filaments. As he watched, she gradually slid forward, her arms limp between her knees. He moved with swift accuracy to stop her from falling off the chair, grasping her elbow and shoulder and pushing her back.

"Removement of designate Phoenix from this unit not advisable," Cerebro's dispassionately warm voice informed them.

Beast raised a hand to adjust his spectacles, not answering the computer as it would not expect or accept an answer.

Scott moved past him to crouch by Jean's chair. He touched her cheek and her head lolled to the side. He craned his head over his shoulder. "Elisabeth?"

"I don't know" Half shadow, half human, she glided from the unlit back wall and circled Rogue and Jean. Her psi-blade flickered to life, illuminating her arm and nearby metal surfaces with a pink that contrasted nauseatingly with the computer screen aqua. Scott stepped back when she brushed disconcertingly close and Hank flipped up to hang upside down from a conveniently place ceiling bar causing a muffled thump.

"I can't feel anything but," she sighed. "It's as if I am looking straight at...." Her eyebrows slanted as catlike, she regarded Rogue. She tipped her head from side to side in measured motions, like a snake dancing to harmonic vibrations.

Hank heard her move before he saw her collide with Scott, pushing the younger man aside. Red flashed behind Scott's visor as he turned his attention on Elisabeth, the question obvious despite the lack of facial cues.

"She's aware," the British woman murmured.

Elisabeth cocked her head, raising her blade behind Jean's neck, holding it for a fraction of a second, then dropped her arm. "No." Her eyes narrowed as her unique psionic signature, the immaterial butterfly, manifested. She swung smoothly around Jean and moved behind Rogue, raising the blade again. "Scott, the inhibitor, on the table. Immediately after I strike, get that on Rogue."

She waited until he picked up the spider-like object, then nodded once and flicked her wrist, slicing through the back of Rogue's neck.

The apparently comatose women lunged forward and before she fell, Scott glimpsed savagery twisting her features. She hit the floor with the sound of bone. landing heavily on a shoulder and striking Jean hard enough to knock her down as well.

Scott was clearly unprepared for Elisabeth's cry of fear and pain, for Cerebro's blaring alarm, for Jean's convulsions and for the arc of psionic light dancing between Psylocke's and Rogue. It was only a second of hesitation, but it was enough. He dove, and pressed the inhibitor to Rogue's temple.

The inhibitor latched onto her skin like a leach and her world changed. Rogue watched the others leave, thinking not about the preceeding events but the most trivial of things. She forced herself to think out of pure self-defense. The opiates were still flooding her system, but without her power fully active, they were beginning to have the more traditional effect.

The full force of gravity pulled on her, not as the negligent factor she was accustomed to. It made her body feel more real and less like an unstoppable mass of titanium. Now if she were to bang her arm on a hard edge it would hurt. Her arm would dent, not the object it collided with. There would be a bruise and pain, not a vague sensation of pressure or force. There was no invulnerability to interfere with the sensations caused by rapid or intense meeting of opposing forces. On the other hand, I am drugged, eh?

She rolled onto her back, inexplicably frustrated. Lacing her fingers over her stomach, she deliberately stared back at Psylocke. The British woman was attempting to stare her down, comical under the circumstances. Those glowing lavender eyes reminded her of another desperately angry woman. She felt a thin smile crack her face and slowly winked at Elisabeth through the fog of drugs.

The normally composed face went livid, a martial intent revealing itself.

Go on' sugar, I dare ya.

Elisabeth was too intelligent to fall for that trap and carefully backed into a shadow, warping and disappearing into darkness. The last expression Rogue could see on her face was pity, a sort of gentle understanding. She watched the underside of the table for a few minutes, then closed her eyes trying to feel shame.

This loss of power was not new, but each time it was different. When she had fought Belladonna, she had been terrified. She had felt pain caused by her own clumsiness, not that it had bothered her. The pain, that is. It was nice to experience things for what they were rather than to be protected from them. No, the terror was because when Candra had removed her power, Rogue had stood there dumbly staring at an assassin. Her mind had completely blanked. Belle was five feet away from me. She threw that knife.... Too close. She was too close, too good, to have missed. She had felt shame then.

Before that was Asteroid M, but that did not count. She had been a puppet of Magneto then. Magnus. The Savage Land. Wild, exuberant freedom. Time had blurred as she had lived day by day with no responsibility. Only later did she feel guilt over the selfish joy she had taken in tracking and hunting, in the self-centered fight for survival. Everything had been real then, from the scrapes and bugs down to the curious arousal and admiration she had felt around Magnus. Even though there was no one to hear here thoughts, Rogue ducked her head. If he had so much as given a sign of consent.... But he had more important things to do, like save the world from itself.

She sighed and cast back further to a time she did not like to think about but there was no Jean here to do a psycho-analysis of every insignificant detail. Genosha. A prison. She swallowed. There had been terror then too, a miserable suffocating fear. Her loss of power had been a shock that time and today she could admit that she had slipped into a numbing state of denial. It had not been over her loss of strength or invulnerability. It had been over the loss of her own power, the baneful touch.

She hated her power. She hated knowing what the guards thought of mutants, of her, of themselves. She hated knowing what they did to the more spirited and therefore entertaining mutants, not for knowing violence, hate, rape, but for understanding them from both sides. She hated knowing what happened to human beings caged like animals. Most of all, she had hated herself for wanting back the comforting isolation of her power. That need had been an ache in the center of her chest causing her to seek out Carol to do what she had not been able to do.

She noticed that her hands were shaking again. She took a shuddering breath and carefully rose to reseat herself. What a crock. Jean's right. I must have been one fucked up little kid. Well, no, not really. I guess that's the real problem. Nothing. She did not need Jean or any psychologist to tell her she felt vulnerable without her power. But she's reading too much into it. I want to control my power. I want to be rid of it. I... I just contradicted myself.

Isn't knowing why you're fucked up supposed to make the problems go away? She knew that was simplistic but she did not care. She had to control this. Tears leaked down her face and she wiped them away furiously. She was letting herself get all worked up over nothing. She laced her hands behind her neck, bowed over, rocking back and forth trying not to be ashamed.

That was how Remy found her. She was quiet but her eyes were red. Her head shifted enough so that he knew she was aware of his presence even though she did not acknowledge him. He heaved a mental sigh. If he let her sit here, left her alone as she wanted him to, nothing would go away. She would take all the guilt, hurt, anger and cram it into that place where she hid all her strong emotions and then pretend that she was fine or use her temper as a cover. He knew all about that.

There was no point in mincing words. "Hank says dat Jean's in a coma but her brain waves comin' 'round an' she prob'ly be fine."

"What about Psyocke? Ah think.... " Her voice trailed off. She was rubbing the back of one ear, absently, as if examining a wound. He could see the dull sheen of articulated metal.

He silently approached the chair she was hunched in and lifted a hand over her shoulder.

"Don' touch me. Answer my question."

He ignored her rudely listless tone. "Beat, but awake. Tired."

Rogue rocked slightly. "Ah absorbed them, their mind's, an' Ah wasn' touchin' either of 'em," she murmured in a flat voice. "Didn' feel it. Ah jus' know it."

"Ya sure 'bout dat?"

"Ah don' know." She was massaging her temples, staring at nothing. Her eyes were wide, pupils dilated. Despite her agitation, her pulse was even, her breath, rythmic. She was not hearing the danger around her, real or imagined.

He made an indeterminate sound. Hank had mumbled about drugging her as Remy had passed the scientist in the hall. His hand was still hovering over her shoulder. "I'm gon' put my hand on ya shoulder an' if ya hit me, I hit ya back, okay?" He did not wait for permission. Someone had to remind her what was real and what was not, and what could be real.

She turned her head, studied him for a moment, then slumped over further resting her elbows on her thighs. "Would y'really hit me back?"

"Ayup." He touched a cord of muscle between her shoulder blades. It did not budge. He shrugged and took a chance, beginning to massage her back. "Ya shouldn' hit a body wit'out good reason." She stiffened and he cuffed her lightly in reprimand. "Don' do dat. I'm tryin' t'get ya to relax an' I don' wan' ya undoin' m'work. Not ever day I get de chance to give ya a massage an' not worry 'bout invuln'bility kickin' in." He wondered if he had pushed too far when she did not immediately reply.

" 'Course y'would notice. Nothin' gets by anyone in this house."

He worked under the base of her shoulder blades, attempting to get her to drop her shoulders. If some villain doesn't kill her, self-control will. Our nuerosis will probably kill all of us. Someday, a maniac will come here to destory us and end up instead dying from sympathetic stress.

"Aren't y'gon' ask me if Ah wan' talk about it," she drawled with force sarcasm.

"Nope." He was dying to know but she was already strained and angry. He did not want to exacerbate the situation. If she was asking him that question then there was the possibility that she would discuss the problem with him later. Besides, he was thinking, adding up the bits he had been told and overheard. He suspected there was more than one puzzle with missing pieces present. The Jean angle was understandable. She was tackling an easier problem than finding Xavier rather than drowning in failure. Scott, he suspected, was reacting out of concern for Jean more than anything. Hank was investigating.

"Oh." She sounded disappointed.

"Ya know, if we go somewhere ya can lay down, dis be easier."

"No thanks. If y'were any less subtle-"

"Den my mind would be as dirty as yours. Ya wan' me t'stop?"


"Den ya wan' me t'keep goin'?"


He quirked his lip, pleased that she was still replying sensibly. Smoothing his hands over the tops of her shoulders, he gave her a nudge. "Le'me put it dis way: From now on, ya got t'tell me what t'do, when, where an' how." What was Hank investigating?

She twisted almost casually around to face him. He had expected a scowl, perhaps an angered retort. Intead, her expression was best described as bemused. "Y'know, sugar, I almost killed Jean'n'Betsy. Ah didn' mean to, but all's same." She smiled abruptly, a lopsided travesty. "Ah can see y'don' believe that. True though."

Since people tended to believe whatever a person believed of themself, Remy stared her right back in the eye. For whatever dopey reason she had, Rogue was trying to terrorize him. It would be cute if it weren't for the way the hair on the back of his neck was rising.

She blinked, recognizing his return challenge. Her smile faded as she tipped her head methodically to one side. She opened her mouth as if she would say something further. "No, it's no good, is it? Not fair to force you."

"Really? So, my room or your's?"

"Don't distract me."

"O' course. It do no good for ya t'worry. Jean and Betsy gon' get better an' when dey do, ya talk wit' dem. You," he pointed a finger at her nose, "need t'relax. I can see ya had a rough night and den dis," he waved to encompass the room, "happened. Whatever it was, I don' figure ya need any more questions from me. So, come on." So long as he kept talking, he could keep charming. So long as he kept charming, he could take care of her.

With a dry, assessing look, she got up and followed him. "Anyone out in the hall?"

"What? Ya worried 'bout gossip? Too late for dat, chere. Dey already askin' why we crawl out of bed toget'er. An' on dat subject, Joseph spittin' mad. He thinks I seduced ya." He put a hand on his forehead and swooned melodramatically. He would keep her distracted if it was the last thing he managed.

She watched her feet and pocketed her hands as they made their way to the stairs. "Ah'm serious. Don't distract me. It's very important that y'don' distract me."

And there's that creepy crawly feeling again. He felt foolishly hopeful that she would cheer up if he said the right thing, made the right gesture. Rogue could handle physical confrontations with ease but he wished he could help with the emotional ones. Not that I'm a bastion of expression myself. But she would insist on handling matters on her own. That was her way.

She went towards the mens' dorms and Remy followed, mildly startled. He raised his brows and intentionally bumped her side. She shoved back but was clearly disgruntled when the motion merely served to propell her backwards. "What?"

"Wonderin' why ya picked my room."

"E'ry time Ah'm in my room, someone gets hurt. 'Sides, no one'll think t'look for me there." She pulled a peculiar facial expression that made her look like a duck. "Good logic, don'tcha think?"

"Perfect, except for Logan who can smell ya, Joseph who can track ya electro-magnetic signature, Stormy who knows where every livin' t'ing is around her an' anyone smart 'nough t'use Cerebro." He grew concerned when she dipped her head and expelled a long breath.

"Yeah. Or Sinister. Now there is an interestin' man."

The back of his neck prickled and he finally understood the underlying reason for her tension. The pieces clicked into place. Gone for the whole night, looks a bit frayed around the edges, Jeanie mucking around in her head and her powers acting strange. Essex was under the illusion that the partnership he and Remy had held continued to exist. The man refused to accept that it was over, that he had no hold over him. Remy would not be surprised to learn he was trying to use Rogue as a lever against him. "What he do to ya?" he whispered.

"Not about you."

"Hey. It's you-"

Her lips thinned and the familiar line between her brows appeared. She shook her head in consideration. "Y'know him; it's always 'bout Scott an' Jean.."

A different worry replaced his previous one. He clenched one hand into a fist. "But he interested in them because he wan' make the perfect mutant. He goes after Summers because they're powerful and stable an' Jean because she premier psi. I bet he keeps track of lot of mutants t'borrow their DNA."

"Mm hm. Y'know, he really loved his wife."

He took her hand, clasping it in his own, not knowing what to say. There was no way to comfort someone who was being used as a test subject against their will. There's no way this is purely about genetric research. Sinister inevitably works with more than one purpose in mind to maximize pay off. He squeezed her hand in reassurance before taking her meaning. Remy wondered if he looked in her face now, would her eyes be green?

"The las' thing this world needs is more mutants like me."

A gunshot wound to the head did not ncessarily kill a person. It depended on where the bullet went and how much tissue damange it caused. Blood loss or hemorrhaging killed a person. Oxygen deprivation killed. Disrupted hormone and enzyme production and distribution killed. A person did not need their mind to live, but these people, here in this morgue, were dead with no outward injury. It was as if they had inexplicably gone brain dead in sudden catastrophic failure.

Clive walked around the first cadaver to the second, a cop. What did he have here? Both bodies found in an alley. No signs of violence. All possessions intact. Civilian passerby notices something unusual, gets involved in the wrong thing at the wrong time. Civilian goes down. There's a fuss. Police officer has the misfortune to hear or see it. Officer down. Perpetrator flees scene.

No motive.

Clive let the drape fall over the young man's face. He had to stop thinking of the two victims as people. They were dead and pretending they still had souls made him angry. Unless channeled, anger was useless. Even if he had not been acquainted with a particular mutant who could do this, the power signature lingering at the scene of crime -- no, incident, he had to remember that there had been no signs of violence -- was unmistakable. That crazy old fanatic Bastion had been telling the truth when he claimed that his Sentinels could identify individual mutants.

His superiors had accused him of pathological obsession but he was no madman like that would-be Hitler. Crazy and old. Pah. There were ways around that. Clive had a more private agenda with one group of mutants, not all of them. Irene Adler was dead. St. John Allerdyce had contracted Legacy and would soon be dead. Frederick J. Dukes and Dominic Szilard were both mercenaries and would rear their ugly heads sooner or later. Raven Darkholme was in the custody of X-Factor, although he doubted their ability to contain her. He had waited this long. He could wait longer, or he could draw her out by going after the last member of the former Brotherhood. The one who had the nerve to think that because one tiny group of vigilantes forgave her past that everyone did. So it would start today the same way it had started last time, with Rogue.

Emilio Suarez struck him as a polite but harassed man. Clive was not surprised. He was a scientist, after all. It did not matter to the good doctor that Clive was assigned as their resident guard dog and was here to investigate a case of missing government files. All the scientist cared about was continuing his own research undelayed. Clive could not blame him for that. All he wanted was to clear up what was probably a case of misplaced papers by the resident geniuses.

They were walking down a dull gray corridor that opened into a small lobby as they turned the corner. A bored security guard jerked to attention behind an equally gray desk. Past him a folding chair had been set inside the interior entrance doors with an unauthorized civilian sitting in it. Clive drew to a stop, ignoring Suarez who was making a speech of good will.

"What is that girl doing here?"

Suarez raised his eyebrows in confusion. "Hm? Her? Oh, she's just Dr. Darkholme's ward, but as I was saying-"

"Yes, but what is she doing here?"

"Ah, well," the scientist smiled depreciatingly, "she's only a child. We saw no harm in letting her visit, very curious and attentive. It's quite flattering. I doubt she understands half of what she sees, anyhow."

"I see." He did. As soon as the teenage "child" had noticed him, her idleness had shifted to wary attentiveness. Although she continued to flip through the magazine held in her lap, her feet were firmly planted on the floor, shoulder width apart. She was wearing combat boots and her clothing had a distinctly military cut and coloring to it. Her oddest feature was surely her hair, an auburn brown with two white stripes slightly above each temple. The streaks of gray, or bleaching, made her look older but the soft face and androgynous build suggested early teens. He would guess no older than sixteen, most likely younger.

She glanced up at him with eyes that twinkled the same green as her earrings. Giving him an appraisal, she smiled and winked before returning to her magazine. Clive's opinion went from concern to irritation. Punk. She should not have that maturity, if it could be called that, in her eyes. Parents these days did not watch their children like they should. Children learned most their values from peers and family, not media. Their families were responsible for any dissolution and her family was Dr. Darkholme. Odd. The name seemed familiar. Altogether, this girl and her guardian were suspect. That was just gut instinct.

Clive casually turned to leave. "Is she kept under surveillance at all times?"

Suarez chuckled. "You must find us irresponsible. Yes, there are four cameras in the lobby with the guard and no unauthorized personnel are allowed in the halls and rooms unescorted. I assure you, she hasn't been wandering through the complex stealing files, if that's what you're implying."

"Yes, well, keep an eye on her anyway."

"You honestly think she's a security risk?"

"I think appearances are deceiving." Missing files and a candidate for Hitler Youth. He reached inside his suit jacket for his cellular to call Kotovsky.

Dr. Suarez chortled silently and pulled ahead of him. "Yes. Yes they are, aren't they?"

"Excuse me?"

"I was just referring to genetic experimentation and unexpected results."

He should have listened to his gut sooner. An explosion rocked the laboratory. It came as a vibration in the walls and floor, a quick internal draft of air being sucked into fire, and a hollow bone deep boom. Clive was torn between running towards it and checking on the punk-ass kid in the lobby. People starting shouting down the hall. Scientists yelling at each other to get out, asking what was going on as if it wasn't perfectly obvious. It's a terrorist attack you shit-heads. Like any moron thought a genetic research facility aimed at mutants was safe from attack because it was in Hicksville, West Virginia. Yeah, right. While he stood there, balanced on one foot, he forgot about the gas lines.

The wall punched him in the face and side. It kicked him across the hallway where he slid down the wall coughing up blood. He saw Dr. Suarez go down, tossed like a rag doll and he imagined that he looked the same way to an observer. Bigger. I'm a big rag doll. What a stupid thought to have. He was running forward before his legs finished picking him up off the tiles. The good doctor was a mess. Maybe that was the heat waves from the fire. Fire. He had to get out of the fire. He expected blood; the doctor was a mess. There was no blood. The doctor was heavy. Weighed a frigging ton. Clive ran towards the gunfire where the shouting had ebbed.

He fell down again as a set of double doors were shoved open. A blue woman leapt out and turned with an automatic. She was smiling and shooting, having herself a good time. Heels. She's wearing goddamn five inch heels. There was red on those white boots. He could see that same red on the walls and doors she had flung open. Yeah? How about we see some red on you bitch. His .38 was no hand cannon, but it would kill. He was already down. She had not even looked at him. Why waste time looking at a corpse, but that meant she had reason to think he was dead. The kid. Aw, shit, the kid.

Something punched his shoulder. A bullet made him kiss the floor. Where the hell did she hide something that big? The magazine. She had the damn thing in her lap. He wanted to laugh at the irony of that, the mental image, but his shoulder hurt. But it only hurt. He was not dead. Stupid kid. Should've aimed. He rolled over on his back, tossing Suarez unceremoniously aside.

Cross-fire erupted over him. Seemed like he would have to revise his opinion of government scientists. Aw hell. He should let her get shot, take care of one little problem. Trouble was, kids had to be taught to hate. Anyone could kill, but there was something to salvage with her. Already frozen by the cross-fire, too inexperienced to drop, the girl nearly had a heart-attack when she saw him lunge up at her. She let her silver gun fall to her side and that was all the encouragement he needed. Didn't drop it, though. Good girl. He patted himself on the back. Good cop.

The girl was struggling underneath him. She chopped him on the uninjured shoulder, tried to twist him off. Wasn't making a sound but he could hear her gasping. Kid ain't seeing a cop. She's seeing a man. It made him feel like some kind of pervert. Anything else, and he would have stayed to shield her, but she was out of her mind. Her eyes contracted to pinpoints like a drug addict. Hell. He pulled up off of her and shouted at her to calm down. He had to repeat himself twice, but she did settle down. Then something slid over her face and she was all adult. Gave him a crooked smile. Gave him a kiss. When he came too, she was out of range right in the middle of flying bullets. Maybe God decided to play nice. None of them hit her. She was that scared. Shit. Sorry punk ass kid. Now he had to take down this bunch of thugs.