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 19

Karolina Phillips

12/13/98 - 9/2/02


She retraced her steps to the Z'Noxx chamber. It was a cold, nickel donut glinting in the winter sunlight. Her steps slowed as she approached. Joseph had constructed all that metal, wires and bits just to suppress her power. The powdered snow had blown up against the base so that it grew from the ground, a synthetic boulder. Her breath puffed in wavering clouds blown away by gusts of wind. The chamber was more benevolent in the afternoon sun. She heard a skitter of miniature claws on metal.

A furry tail waved like flag, followed by its owner, a squirrel. It scampered to the edge of the chamber, black eyes studying her, then, erupted into a scolding chatter, causing her to smile thinly.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, y'can have the stupid thing."

The squirrel sat on haunches inquisitively flipping its tail once. With a sidewise glance, it spun off. She turned around, curious to see what had startled the animal.

"Hey, Logan."

"Hey, Darlin'." He ground out and pocketed a half-smoked cigar, then strolled over to lean against the icy bulk of the Z'Noxx with her. "Saw Raven."

"Uh huh. She wanted t'tell me how pathetic Ah was. T'm'face." She heard the lack of emotion in her voice. "That's her way of sayin' she cares, really."

Feral eyes gleamed humanely, but she ignored Logan as he watched her. Watching her watch him, in infinite regression. They were not the best of friends. Carol and Logan had been combat buddies and he was simply looking for her ghost in Rogue, the woman he remembered, not the stranger that had grown from the wreckage left behind. She let him search for her shadow because she was a great believer in taking comfort where available. Of course, perhaps she was being unfair, sulky, even.

From the recesses of a scraggly white pine emerged a chickadee, then two more. They chirped, flitting from branch to branch. Rogue watched them, tucking her gloved hands in her pockets. Remy had not protested her departure and she was glad for that but unprepared for his lack of argument. So maybe I'm just itching for a fight with anyone who makes themselves handy.

The chamber behind her back felt like a two ton block of ice, both physically and psychologically unwieldy. She knew, intellectually, that it had delicate parts prone to malfunctioning. It was not the size or intrinsic unreliability of the machine that bothered her. It was the necessity warring with her pride and the resulting lack of compromise that caused trouble. She thought back to Logan and whether he was truly a friend, and if it mattered.

Logan was still waiting. He must have something to say. She gestured her chin in his direction while removing the inhibitor from her temple. "What d'y'think of this here gizmo?" She rolled it between her index finger and thumb as gently as she would pet a kitten or cautiously as she would touch a scorpion.

He grunted his assessment, "It's a gadget."

"Mm. Jean asked me t'wear it." She dangled the inhibitor between two fingers in the way a cat might proffer a dead mouse. She turned the small device around in her hand. "Joseph asked me to use the chamber. Ah s'pose they mean well."

He pulled the cigar out to chew on it. "Looks like a spider."

"Uh huh." And it'll catch me right quick if I let it. Sitting, like a drugged idiot, drooling in contentment, in the War Room had reminded her how and why. She knew herself well enough to realize she would become dependent on the inhibitor, on its convenience, on its lazy solution, on its damning nature. I'd be a cripple without it.

The chickadees converged on a frozen pine cone only to be squawked at by a blue jay. The three smaller birds flew back to the pine tree but watched the larger bird.

"So?" he prompted.

"You probably heard while I was out, but we were talkin', like usual, an' it got out o' hand. Next thing Ah knew Ah...." She slipped the inhibitor into her blazer pocket. "No gloves. Remy said Jean's all right."

Logan frowned but kept listening, working the cigar to the other side of his mouth. "Ya lost yer center, girl."

"Ah don't believe in 'centers', Logan."

He snorted.

"Mystique, Storm, Jean, even Betsy and... and.... They got this idea that my power's changing, growing, like some sort of creature Ah can't control. Ah mean, Mystique's always said stuff like that an' Irené was always givin' me her patented half smile that made me think of lizards. But now Jean thinks I got screwed up as a kid. She figures if she can just find out what and fix it, she can control me. If she can control me, she'll be as good as Xavier. She won't have to worry...." She cut herself off, realizing she was speaking a truth that Jean did not realize.

"Yeah?" His face remained closed, the calm of practice.

"Ah don' know. Y'know, Ah don' forget things. It's all in there, somewhere, waitin' t'get loose. The way those guys talked, it's like Ah won't be able to control it, ever." She thought about it. Whatever it was, her power, the conglomerate force of memories, Sinister had helped wake it. He had baited her and like a fool.... I was. But don't they understand? I need to be a fool.

He cupped the cigar in one hand to protect it from the wind and relit it. "Sounds like defeatist talk to me. Don't think much of it." Blue smoke rippled away, over the chamber.

Starting to answer, she fell silent. He thought the same thing they all did. He believed power was the goal: having power, being power, owning power, mutant powers, political power, social power. Didn't they understand how absolute her own power could be? Hadn't they ever read that quote? Didn't Jean grasp where she was pushing her?

She was tired of struggling with her power. What good was fighting when so many experienced people believed it to be futile? And what difference did it make? She knew, without being told, that she was completely unfit to be part of the team. She had lost her function. But if I can't be a soldier, I can't be a civilian.... Without her powers, she served no purpose. With her powers, she was a menace.

"What's wrong, darlin'?"

"Nothin'. Ah should be goin'." She could see the tension in his frame, the way his weight shifted forward, his face frozen

"Thought so." Blowing a smoke ring, he tipped his hat. "Would it be that bad t'admit it? The best martial arts teach you to use your weaknesses like your strengths, to move yourself with grace. Ya gotta move with the forces around you if yer not strong enough to force'em back."

"Ah know that," she gritted out. "But this force is immoral."

"Amoral. Natural things don' have morality, girl."

"Same difference."

"Suit yerself." He rolled forward, meandering into the forest and disappearing between two trees.

A scritch scratch of bark announced the return of the squirrel. It bounded towards the birds, snatched up the pine cone and sped off. She quirked her lips and ground her heel into the icy snow.

Jean opened her eyes to the blue-white of the Medlab ceiling and wondered if it was real. The sheet lying over her and the pillow and mattress under her felt real. The room was empty aside from monitors, racks and lighting equipment. She could feel her rib cage expand as she took a steeling breath. I don't think this is Rogue's mind but, her mind built a city for all those she had ever absorbed. Who's to say this isn't an environment created solely for my comfort?

She closed her eyes to concentrate on making a mental leap, telepathic contact with someone. Anyone. Scott? Nothing. His warm, solid presence was missing. The constant beeping from cardio-monitor accelerated and she focussed on that sound to steady her nerves. Calm down. If you're awake then your powers should return shortly. Logic ruthlessly reminded here that they should be back now. There was an ache under the junction of her collar bones. She swallowed and fisted her hands in the cool sheets. I haven't tried telekinesis yet. There's no need to panic. The effects of her powers vary on individuals and she wasn't trying to attack me. It just happened. It was just an accident.

The room was neat and organized, nothing small left loose for her to experiment on. There has to be something I can see move if I try. The monitors blocked her view to the immediate right and left. There was nothing in front of her, not even a drape or curtain of some type. She studied the floor. Tucked into a corner was a small piece of metal, maybe a dropped paper clip. It would do. All I have to do is make it move. An inch. A half inch. Anything. The beeping at her left jumped, accelerated, then fell off. The paper clip did not so much as twitch. Oh God, this can't be happening. This can't be-

The Medlab door whirred open and Scott stepped in. "Sorry it took so long, I was across the Mansion when you called. What happened?"

She could have cried in relief. He heard me. Then she grimaced at how she had let the bout of hysterics cloud her mind like that. It would not happen again. "I was stupid. I let my curiosity get the better of me and dove into a situation that required back-up that I didn't have."

"She tried to kill you?"

Jean sent a half smile in his direction, nodding him over. He sat on the bed beside her. Scott was all business now; he regarded anything that harmed her very seriously. He would assume the worst scenario and work his way up from there. "No, if she'd been trying to kill me, one of us would probably be dead."

Scott turned his body obliquely and the slit in his visor flared. "You knew this would happen. You didn't tell me, anyone. You snuck out of the cabin-"

She pinched him on that soft area where the broad back muscles wrapped around the rib cage and joined at the waist, smiling when he jumped. "Scott, don't say anything you'll regret."

"I-, no, it's not that. I'm worried about you. I know psi-powers in theory, I've been on the astral plane with you, but I don't understand what happened. What I know is that Xavier never mentioned anything unusual about Rogue, that she did something to Betsy that hurt her, twice now, and that you're lying in the Medlab. What I know is that the Professor is gone, untraceable by Cerebro or your power. That the current national politics are scaring us all. I need to know what happened if only to keep us from turning on each other. Even if you think I won't understand, will you try to explain this to me?"

Jean took his hand and placed it on the sheet, over her stomach. She held it there, sighing wearily. As a telepath, she so often avoided human presence for the sake of mental peace, that his touch was reassuring in and of itself. "What happened? I was stupid. Something woke me up and when I looked to see what it was, I saw Rogue's mind, or her power, I'm not sure which, whipping around out of bounds."

"She's a psi?"

"No, not a 'path of any type, if that's what you're asking. Obviously, anyone who absorbs minds into their own needs to be equipped to deal with it. The mind is more than cells, amino acids and electromagnetic waves. Something that binds all minds together into the astral plane...." She lapsed off thinking about where the line was between psi and a power that could manifest on the astral plane. "I'm psi, Betsy's psi, Xavier. For instance, Gambit has some psi abilities, but they're not that conscious or directed. Her power is like that. What I saw is tied to her mind, but it's only as aspect of her power, a psionic aspect exclusively for the purpose of... and that's the problem. I don't know what her power is. We're too early in our evolution to have names for everything."

There were minuscule wrinkles on Scott's forehead. The small shadow under his lower lip deepened as he absently rubbed a thumb over her knuckles. "So you're saying her power isn't what we think it is?" he prompted.

"No. I'm saying her power is exactly what she says it is, not merely the surface image we see. She drained me. She sank her teeth right in and didn't let go until Betsy baited her, and I'm not using the word lightly. She absorbed my mind and, I'm willing to bet, duplicated it. See what I'm saying? There's a blueprint of my mind, my soul, inside hers and I don't know if she'll use it as a map, a receptor, an icon or a shortcut to me. We're all used to thinking, 'oh, Rogue, she can borrow so'n'so's power and learn what they know'. We forget what she keeps telling us."

"That she absorbs people, consumes them. If she can't prevent herself from hurting others...." He shook his head. "But you wouldn't be so curious and intent if you thought that. I know you, which means, you have a plan."

"I was talking with Storm and maybe that's what her power is designed to do; not her personal choice. We look at it as negative, vicious, but this may be Mother Nature's way of putting a check on telepaths. I can't not sense other minds, you can't not shoot optic blasts, Wolverine can't not be aware of his animal senses, Storm can't not control the weather. Very few mutants have the choice of not using their powers."

"But if someone tells a mutant that they do through the choice of touch, as I have a choice. But only through wearing a restraint. It's like the Professor intentionally mislead her. Did he need to be afraid?"

Jean curled a warm thought around him. He was always willing to play devils advocate. "Yes and no. No, because I don't think this is uncontrollable, that has a psychological root which is something I can fix. Yes, because of a discussion I had with Hank: Her power managed to pinpoint and incorporate the exact gene clusters responsible for Ms. Marvel's Kree based abilities -- and no, everyone but you does not know."

"That could have been an anomaly; a freak event."

"I don't think it was. There are hundreds of other less pronounced mutations of a similar type in her genome. I think that was the first time her power did what it was meant to do, and it frightened her."

"And the other cases?"

"It makes sense to taste before you swallow."

"You don't have to swallow," he reassured, very soberly.

Jean eyed her husband shrewdly. "You just be glad I don't completely have my powers back."

A noise, creaking through the walls of the mansion and ending with a muffled thud, alerted Rogue to an arrival at the front entrance. Her immediate thought was "enemy" which she decided meant she was paranoid. Technically speaking, it could be anyone, except that most of the mansion residents used windows, skylights, the defensive turrets, side doors or more creative means of entry such as teleportation. Only when required did she or her fellow mutants walk up the stairs and open the oversized, titanium reinforced front doors, even though this was their home.

She looked briefly around her room. It was odd how the word "room" translated into "quarters" by the time it reached her front brain. These quarters contained everything she currently valued, in the superficial way material goods could be cherished. When most folks love a thing, it's a memory associated with that thing that they really like. Sometimes a memory of someone else, someone they cared for or hated, feared. Or maybe it reminded them of an elusive sensation.

She ran her hand over the bedspread. Silk. It had that cool, slick feel of polished metal. It reminded her of a house in Hong Kong. Silk felt deceptively fragile but had incredible tensile strength. It also wicked sweat well. Perhaps it was post-traumatic stress, or just paranoia that was causing her pulse to speed. Maybe it was the guest. She edged around the bureau, opening the closet door, wondering if combat armor was worth the effort. Probably not. It lacked stealth, screaming the wearer's identity as an infiltrater. She managed a grin. It probably didn't fit anyway.

Rogue snatched a blazer off a hanger and crept into the hallway. She could only hear murmuring voices from her position. The rising and falling of human noise, interrupted by variations on a theme. Whoever the guest was, they were making Logan and Ororo angry. Logan's voice was low and even like the hypnotic purr of a cheetah. Ororo sounded icy but the wind was beating at the windows. Rogue went as far as the corner where the hall met the staircase.

"...listen to what I'm saying without jumping to conclusions? You say you want to cooperate, to work with the system, and all you two are doing is giving me a hard time. I don't want to wave my badge around or cause a fuss. I just want to check some facts."

"Checkin' facts usually means digging information for someone's grave."

"You sound paranoid, Logan. I didn't realize you and your friends had anything to hide."

"Whether we have anything to conceal, you are on private property at our suffering, Agent Bauer."

The windows rattled again.

"Ma'am, I really am just trying to do my job and trying to do it as respectfully as possible so let me make something clear. First of all, I know both of you are mutants. I know this because I have, in my pocket, an energy signature tracer. They're pretty common these days. Now, I also have two dead bodies on my hands. The same trace signature I found on them is somewhere in this building. I can use that as evidence for a search warrant if I need to."

"That's unauthorized recording, bub."

"Not under current law."

Rogue realized that the harsh background noise was her own breath. Her friends were taking far too long to answer Clive's unspoken question, his threat. My own fault, of course. I mean, what would I think in their place after everything that's been going on? She waited a few seconds longer, but they could already be directing Clive towards the staircase. She had no time.

She gingerly grasped the sides of her head and held tightly. She wanted to bolt, rabbit-like, run from these dangers that seemed to have only forbidden solutions. Instead, she replaced the inhibitor she had removed earlier. Hopefully, it would dampen the brain activity Clive was most likely tracking. He seemed to know everything.

Tori must have told him, just like Mystique had claimed. She had to protect malevolent mutants from the FBI. So he was the enemy. The government was the enemy. Oh fer chrissakes. That's terrorist thinking. If I keep thinking like this, I'm going to give myself a stroke. Or maybe just have a psychotic episode that ends in world domination.

She did have time to make a complex decision. Scott had unofficially booted her off the team. Jean and Betsy regarded her as a danger. She knew how destructive the team could be in their well-meaning courses. But, if Jean could not control her power, then it was up to Rogue, on her own. She didn't know where Remy was and was not sure she wanted his help. Logan was clearly occupied.

Rogue took a shaky breath, patted her pockets, checked for the presence of her equipment belt and opened her bedroom window. There was no point in outstaying her welcome. She had her foot on the window ledge before she remembered to turn off the inhibitor.

"Ms Hawkins," the receptionist ushered her forward. "Mr. Brammel will see you now."

"Thank you." Rogue stretched the kinks out of her legs and went to the plain wooden door. Why on earth did he make me sit here so long? He knows it's me. Anthony Brammel was the stockbroker of the highest caliber, possessing a superhuman skill to rapidly calculate outcomes. In extreme cases, it created the illusion of pre-sentience. Guess work and a phone book had revealed his location. So maybe he's busy. Still, he should know that I wouldn't be here unless it was an emergency. She could send a warning, but that could be traced. Second, her friends, Mystique's agents, might not believe anything that was not in person. Might as well be around to help if trouble follows.

A round man seated behind a desk greeted her. His fine suit was offset by frizzy balding hair and a pair of glasses. "Are you Michelle?" he asked doubtfully. His hands were not visible below the desk surface.

"Before y'go callin' security, yes it's me."

He smiled like a child. "Of course, a disguise." He shook his head in bemusement. "I always miss the obvious."

Currently, her hair was a solid brown. Hair dye was a wonderful invention. "Ah'm assumin' y'know why Ah'm here?"

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. I had a client on the line."

"Oh, that's all right. Ah un'erstan'." She looked around the room trying to make a picture of a man she has met only briefly years ago. The carpet was gray, walls white and furniture solid wood. A potted shrub was tucked in a corner and partially obstructed a window. There was bric-a-brac on every available surface, most of it relating to ducks. None of it was personal. "Y'seem t'have done well for yourself."

Anthony moved his arms but his hands remained out of sight. His smile faltered. "I'll be frank and to the point, Michelle, may I call you that?" At her nod, he continued, "I don't appreciate threats. If you-"

She shook her head vigorously. "No, wait, that wasn' a threat. It was an observation, honest." He must have worked hard to get here. Mystique had found him in the slum, put him through college and if there were dishonest and illegal bits in between, she had never told Rogue. The sheer lengths her mother would go through to use someone amazed her. "If anythin', Ah want t'help you. Ah haven' been in this business for a while now an' Ah'm not interested in resumin'. Y'got nothin' t'fear from me."

He blinked at her some more, until she was reminded of a china doll, then put his hands on the desk top. "Very well. May I ask why you are here, if not to enlist my services?"

There was a gold band on his ring finger. It was tarnished with age. He did not appear deceitful but, rather, a middle aged man concerned for his career and family's welfare. "Ah got some information that you an' some other folks might be in serious danger from Bastion an' his li'l' campaign. Ah wasn't sure you'd take a message, or that it wouldn' be intercepted, so Ah came directly."

"I see. A friendly warning. How nice. You presented a direct line of travel instead. And you are offering protection?"

She closed her eyes in exasperation. "No, not that kind. Ah tol' ya, Ah ain' in the business anymore. Ah'm in the business of doin' good deeds an' returnin' favors. All Ah wan' is some pointers towards the other folks I need to help out. Besides, Ah know when somethin' dangerous is followin' me." She did not like feeling inept. Mystique could have just told me where to find everyone, if she really cared about them, but no, I have to jump through hoops. Thank you very much.

"So you are offering an exchange?" He was smiling again. "I understand. Please keep in mind that I am a married man and I have a home, a business, a very nice life. While I feel greatly indebted to Ms Darkholme, I will not sacrifice those things, nor will I see them sacrificed. Under any circumstance. Out of curiosity, can you give me a token of your sincerity?"

Nonplused, she stared back at him and his smooth way of switching from honey tone to abrupt and back again. "Well, Ah'm a mutant, so Ah wouldn' be workin' for Bastion an' Ah'm sure y'know Ah work with the X-men. Can't work with them without bein' in direct conflict with Mys- my Momma's methods. Ah can't really give you anythin', but y'can check up on both those things."

Anthony chuckled. "Forgive me for giving you such a difficult time. Only one extremely foolish and gullible would throw in with the former." His face picked up its previous unfocussed gaze. "Or one obsessed," he added, and shrugged. "Very well. What do you need to know?"

She was too involved being irritated at her mother to be startled. It was funny how a person could miss tension creeping up on them. Then again, this was a new situation for her. It had always been Mystique in the negotiating seat, Mystique who acted, postured, spoke the right words in the perfect measure of sweetness, sorrow, anger or any other imaginable emotion. I'm not her. I can't do this like she can. This isn't my life anymore I wish she would take care of her own dirty laundry.

"Um, Ah reckon' y'need some names, huh?"

"That would be helpful. I imagine I know quite a few of our associates."

The disturbing part was that he did. I wouldn't be surprised, not with the way Mystique let it drop that I was party to more than I knew. "Ah need t'get a hold of Izzy, Ol' I-Ping, Krieng, and Jason."

Anthony sat up straighter. "Jason? You think he's in danger?"

She rubbed her fingertips together. All she knew about Jason was his first name, that he had been caught or placed in a laboratory, that he was silent as to why and schizoid to a boot. She had helped rescue him during her first milk run. He had tried to return the favor in his own fashion. "No one gets close t'him without him knowin'." He might make a real handy back-up, though. Remy's too protective and Logan would take this case right out from under me. As much as she disliked her present course, she did not want someone doing it for her. "What about the others?"

"I don't recall an Izzy...."

"Isabel Mendez."

"No, don't know her. Haven't seen or heard from I-Ping for ages, but Krieng has a nice little club a short ways from here."

Well, of course you don't remember Izzy. Forgetting's her power, after all. It was possible the two had never met. Hey, maybe he really is happily married. She chided herself for judging him. I-Ping Soong might be impossible to find. He lived like a gypsy, moving from one place to another, from client to client. "Krieng's in the city? Last I heard, he was down in Georgia."

"Yep. He came up about a year ago." He shrugged and looked at his watch. "Tell you what, since my day's almost over, I can bring you over there." Anthony picked up the phone and told someone where he would be. There were several pauses in the conversation, an exchange of endearments, before he smiled and hung up the phone.