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 ja_glinka@yahoo.com Flames will be blithely ignored.


Minute Change

Part 20

Karolina Phillips

2/24/03

 

Clive straightened his tie, inspected his clothing for dirt or dust and arranged his features into a pleasant smile. Victoria, hearing him open the front door, came into the foyer to greet him. If her smile of welcome was a bit forced, he pretended not to notice. She was his wife of twenty-one years. He recalled their first meeting, the way her eyes went wide when he told her about his line of work. He remembered the way she had put her hand on his arm, her warm smile. He remembered his elation when she said she loved him.

He bent over and kissed her cheek as he hung his gray jacket on the coat rack. When she turned to leave, without a a second glance, the lightest loving touch, he snaked an arm out to twist her back. There was a hunched stiffness to her spine. He cradled her from behind. He had to keep in mind that this new body was a great deal stronger than his old. He wrapped one arm around her stomach and held her elbow at her side. The other he brought around her shoulders and lifted his hand until it cupped her jaw.

She made a weak sound of amusement and stared at the wooden floor. "What's gotten into you?"

"Oh, nothing at all. Can't a man miss the love of his life?" he asked with a tinge of sarcasm. The word, as usual, evoked no discernible response from Victoria. He did not expect it to do so. "I was thinking about how long we've been married, how much I appreciate everything you've done for me."

She relaxed physically but her pulse sped. Her temperature rose by point one four degrees. If he pinned her torso, swung back his shoulder and elbow, he could snap her neck. Clive kissed her temple and tightened his fingers around her jaw. She was trembling.

"Flatterer. I haven't done anything but be myself and keep dinner warm." She tugged at his arm, a trifle frantically it seemed to him.

He activated his pursuit vision protocols. He looked through her skull, through her brain, through the network of blood vessels keeping her alive. Of course, she was human. The termination protocols never came online. He discovered himself smiling. "Yes. You haven't been yourself. You're a very brave woman. I'm sure I must have scared a decade off of you with my work." He squeezed tighter to bring her struggles to a halt. "You didn't even look scared when that mutant showed up on our doorstep."

"What?"

"The other night. That young woman."

"I, how... Of course I wasn't scared. I knew you'd protect me. Now, please, stop playing around and let me get dinner," she announced in exasperation. "You know the doctor's orders. You can't worry so much."

He pressed his fingers against her artery, counting the soft beats of her heart. "Oh, I'm not worried. I was curious. You don't , by any chance, know her do you? Was she a guest? She seemed to be pretty surprised when I chased her off."

Her pulse jumped. "Clive?"

"Hm?" He made no moved to release her. She clutched at his arm, testing his grip. She swallowed and took a breath.

"I met her once. That time, do you remember when you were chasing those horrible terrorists? Do you remember tracking them in this direction?"

"Yes," he prompted.

Victoria licked her lips. She was shaking. "They came here, there was a woman with blue skin. She said... she said that if I didn't let them in, she'd cripple me. I didn't know what to do, I let her in and they waited until you passed, then left. Honest to God, that's all I know."

He angled his head to look into her eyes. They were dilated and met his.

"It's all I know," she insisted.

"Mm." He grazed a fingertip over her lips. "Why didn't you ever tell me this before? Why did you obstruct a government manhunt?"

"She would have killed me. Don't you understand? She would have killed me!"

Ah. A bit of truth. Facts wound with fiction made the best lies. Mystique would kill her if she ever turned traitor. Logically then, Victoria would not have planted the names he had discovered. She would not want to anger her friend. She's too scared. He sighed. It must have been a sloppy accident but she knows that I know the names of people who could expose her dealings with the Brotherhood. She knows, so she calls for help. Unfortunately, help comes in the form of a reluctant incompetent. He released her and she sprang from his embrace.

"I'm sorry. There are so many things happening these days that I can't be a part of. It makes me feel useless and impotent. I didn't mean to scare you."

Victoria slowly brushed her hair back. She grimaced a smile at him. "That's all right. I feel the same way sometimes. Let me get dinner."


The sun was up but cast long shadows of buildings across the street and sidewalks. People jostled them in passing. A neon sign above a basement entrance proclaimed Serendipity . Rogue followed Anthony in, wondering if this place would be anything like her favorite haunt from childhood. She had sneaked out on the town almost every night in the past, although she was sure Irené had known about it. In a way, the Serendipity was similar. The lights were still garish but the music leaned towards techno, not eighties pop. It was early and the club had not reached the toxic fumes stage, but there were a fair number of people lounging against walls or sitting in conversation.

She ended up sitting between a bleached blonde who eyed her resentfully and a pale young man in bondage leather. Rogue resisted the urge to tug on the metal loop dangling from his collar while the woman beside her thumped her glass down forcefully.

The bartender was tall and gangly, a lazy alertness hidden behind a bemused smile. He rolled forward more than he walked and a beard exploded from his face over a stained apron. Tham Kriengchayapruk gave a large grin on spotting Anthony and threw down a rag. "H'lo Anth'! How's work?"

The two men exchanged loose hand shakes and pleasantries, suddenly oblivious to her presence. Rogue felt like a complete stranger and wondered about these other strangers. These two people had never been her friends, not really. They had been "those people momma worked with" who occasionally came to the house, ate their food and talked "business".

She passed an eye over the seat of early evening dancers in the club, absorbing the beat of music as it vibrated her ribs. She picked out choice cuts of hair, styles of clothing, bodies. Even the smell of sweat brought back memories. She could lose herself in a place like this, so she looked away. There was work to be done.

Krieng was watching her. "Rogue?"

"In the flesh."

He pointed his glance at her hair and teased, "No stripes, no spots, no spikes...."

She shushed him. "Carry on like that an' ya'll blow my cover."

Anthony laughed. "By the looks of it, I'd say it's already blown."

Krieng leaned on the bar, uncomfortably. "Anth' here tells me somethin's come up. Since yer not here for dancin'," he picked up the dishrag and tossed it into an unseen corner, "what say we go upstairs and have a chat." He waved a hand at a middle aged man helping him at the bar. They made eye contact and Tham pointed a finger up to show where he was going. The younger man nodded.


When they were seated in a circle up in the lounge, Krieng asked, "So what's so important that y'had to drag poor Anth' over here about?"

"Ah hardly dragged him. More like he offered to bring me here."

"The old lush probably just wanted an excuse, eh?" Krieng waggled an eyebrow at his colleague, who shrugged in response.

Rogue relaxed enough to flash a grin in their direction. "Y'member Tori Bauer?"

"Sure. She worked with yer mother whiles back. A handy government mole. You tryin' to say there's a problem." When he said "problem" he drawled the word with a certain anticipation.

Krieng shared another glance with Anthony, who tipped his head slightly. Rogue went on alert. Common sense reminded her that these two men, while former allies, were suspicious of her intentions. They had no reason to trust her.

"Well, she called the other day. Apparently Clive, her husband, got ahold of a few names, yours bein' one of them so here Ah am. Ah thought y'might appreciate the warnin' that Sentinels might be trackin' you." She cradled her cheek in her right hand, watching their reactions, absently stroking the inhibitor behind her ear.

"The big robots? All pink and black, killin' us mutants like sick dogs?"

"Yeah, the black and pink ones."

"How?"

"What?"

"How did he get us names?"

"S'posedly off of Tori's computer but...."

"But why would he be looking? Why would data that old be on it? How would he have found lost files?" Anthony adjusted his glasses, fussing with the exact alignment. "The sheer statistical improbability.... Set up."

"Yeah, basically. Ah already ran into him an' his two Sentinels. The new ones. Y'see what Ah'm gettin' at, right?"

How had he gotten the names? Assuming the disk is a sham, who told him? If someone in the Bureau had told him, arrests would have been made. Victoria would not have told; her well-being depended on the Underground. She wouldn't sell out these guys. If Bastion knew first then Anthony and Krieng would already be goners. A third party? Sinister? Why would he care? Besides, he wouldn't make a deal with a human. She rubbed a knuckle against her lips.

The trap was set for me. Tori would be a fool to think Mystique wouldn't skin he alive for it. On top of that, she gave me a perfect opening to take out Clive. Only one thing was clear: Clive Bauer had made a deal with Bastion. He said, Tori said, that he knew about these guys. So, he goes to Bastion for some back up to finish a personal vendetta and does the other guy a favor in the process. She frowned in frustration. There was nothing there that she had not thought of before.

She was representing Mystique's and the X-Men's side, as incompatible as they seemed. Clive was representing Bastion's side. This old bunch were the third side, Tori included. Sinister, well, she didn't know what he wanted except mutant domination of the planet. Naturally, that put him against Bastion. So who had leaked the names? The pieces did not fit. None of them did.

"Ah don' know how he got the names. In fact, Ah'm not sure he does know, but Ah don' figure a warnin' hurts none." She leaned forward, gradually, to cup her chin in chilled hands. There had to be another party involved.

Krieng shrugged and rose. "I, for one, have a business to run. If Darkholme herself didn't come here, then it's likely somethin' I can handle on my own." He quirked a smile at her. "And if I see any funny men with pink hats, I'll make sure to rearrange their working parts." He waggled his fingers in an unfriendly way.

"Ah'm not sure that's gon' work, Krieng. They're cyborgs. Y'could destroy all their organics and it wouldn' stop 'em."

Anthony crossed his arms, with a dryly knowing expression. "So you are here to offer protection."

"No, geez." She stood abruptly and tried to run a hand through her hair. She succeeded in mussing it.

Krieng rolled his eyes. "Girl, you do business, you don' do business, but come straight. I gotta go downstairs and see t'my cus'mers. Robots. Gotcha. Anythin' else or we takin' up space?"

Reluctantly, she refrained from badgering him. It would be a waste of effort to insist he needed her help. Not like I can really do anything. Either it's too late or we're playing the waiting game. The longer I sit here, the more of a target he becomes. But what am I supposed to do? Go out there and kill Clive and all his Sentinel buddies? All these guys can do is hide. Mystique would know what to do. She would be able to make these men listen, take her seriously instead of nitpicking. Of course, her methods involved threats, manipulation, lies and subterfuge. All I can do is keep an eye on them. Rogue made a dismissive gesture, barely conscious of tracing a fingertip over her eyebrow.

Anthony slapped her on the shoulder. "Don't worry so much. From what I hear, Bastion's after bigger game. What would he want with spot on the wall mutants like us?"

"Yeah, Ah guess, but step careful anyway. Ah think maybe this is Clive's game." What else is there to say? I get the impression they know more about what's going on than I do. Or maybe they're just uniting against a threat to their perceived freedom. If he is a Sentinel.... No, it's still murder. "Hey, Krieng, y'know where Izzy and I-Ping are?"

"Sure. I-Ping's listed under Ping Electric and the ol' coot probably knows where Izzy's set up."

"Like you don'?"

His eyes twinkled. "A good honest man like me? Of course not. Besides, he can fin' her."

She tapped the inhibitor as she leaned on her hand and chuckled. "The phone book. Now why di'n' Ah think of that?"

Krieng laughed. "You were on Headline News and you didn't think to look in the obvious places?"

"Ah s'pose Ah ain' one t'talk then." So he's in the city too? That made four out of five in New York. If this is a coincidence then the Dhali Lama's an Eskimo. Why do I get the feeling Jason's here too? She watched Krieng and Anthony in her peripheral vision as they exchanged those subtle and arcane signals of two old friends. Two old friends.... Her eyes widened, gradually. She caught her own foolish question.

There was a commotion downstairs. Two men, by the sound of it, were yelling in slurred tones. She could not hear who they were speaking to, although they did systematically pause as if listening to someone. Krieng was silent, his head tipped attentively. He glanced at his watch and rose.

"Sound like a couple of wired dickheads. If you excuse me a moment."

Rogue went to follow him, perversely interested. Seeing her, Brammel quickly bounced up and fell in step as the three of them went downstairs.

Two youths occupied the side entrance. One leaned sluggishly against the alley wall, outside. His face and body were lit only by flashes from the outside street. The one in front, shouting, blocked the doorway. She could see his eyes, dilated to near black. He was sweaty and twitchy as a bird. The bouncer was ushering him out but the smaller man snarled and shoved back. To her surprise, she saw the bouncer give a bit.

Beside her, Krieng sighed. "All right. Let me do it." He swayed passed the bouncer who blocked the view of the entrance way from the customers inside.

Krieng shooed the druggie towards the door, prepared for the clumsy punch thrown in his direction, which he caught, flinging the other man towards the steps. The bland expression on his face never wavered.

The addict's voice cut off in a strangled sound. He tottered on the ball of one foot, pivoted and fell over to writhe in and out of fetal position. His companion fled. Rogue froze, not sure what to do. If she tried to interfere, Krieng and Brammel might doubt her good intentions. Further, the young man might fetch the authorities, assuming he was rational enough to know where he was and who was hurting him. Even the word "mutant" would be enough to put Krieng out of business, and for what?

She looked away. "You didn' have to do that to him."

Krieng shrugged. "Few minutes, he'll be done. Hey, Rick, why don't you dump him before he makes a mess." Krieng wiped his hands on his slacks, then strolled over to the bar.

Rogue watched covertly as Rick picked up the young man and hauled him outside. He shut the door and soon, a car engine came to life. She swallowed down the sour taste in her throat. It had happened so quickly, so easily. Had it even happened?

For a second she felt lightheaded as if she had woken from a dream. She looked around the club seeing it for the first time. What met her eyes was the same as her dream. The tiles, walls, stools, chairs, posters and lights were identical. She pinched herself and it hurt. She frowned. There were speckles of blood on the floor. A man had died there, a human. She felt no sympathy for him. He was human, crime enough but more than that, selfish and focussed on his own needs and pleasures. Man fears anything that disrupts his life. Humans fear mutants. It was the same.

Rogue took a step back, turned and looked at a large man. Who was he? I knew him. His name was on the tip of her tongue. She thought he was a friend. The voice in her head chortled mirthlessly.

A friend? A two-bit mutant like him? I would never accept him as an ally. He wastes his life on providing escape for others, mutant and human alike. He is an enemy of everyone. I would not associate with vermin like him.

Rogue struggled not to let the twisted voice in her head disconcert her. She gulped air and fought the urge to fling off the inhibitor couched behind her ear. There was a voice in her head and it was loud, insistent, dominating. It was a parody of someone else's voice and it was trying to control her. She could ignore it. After all, it was merely a voice in her head.

It happened when I met Rossi and in Genosha. One time I had my power, the other time I didn't. Wipeouts effect of removing powers was temporary, a suppression, until it was reinforced. So I still had my power but it was inhibited, like now and the other time I was weak. There were voices in my head but both times I knew they were someone else.

This time, I didn't know it wasn't me. I thought I was me for a minute there. She shuddered. But I can deal with this. I have to. Then again, she had to wonder. What if that was me thinking those things? What if it happens again? As long as I pay attention-

"Hey, Stripes."

"Wha-?"

"Somethin' botherin' ya?"

She paused and rolled a shoulder. "No. Ah was jus' startled. Ah'm okay." She was looking at the brownish red spots on the floor tiles, trying to remember what they represented.


The sky had darkened to the blue of a city night. The two men behind her were talking quietly, laughing over some jest. The streets were a sea of lights, cars, traffic signals, reflections from glass and enamel. The black shapes of buildings crowded over them as she tucked herself into her parka.

Krieng's shadow, cast by the neon pink sign identifying his club, flowed along the slush framed sidewalk. A lighter, bluish double shadow overlapped it. She looked over her shoulder. Anthony was nodding but when he caught her eye, he smiled politely. Krieng quickly followed suit before they resumed their discussion.

She returned to her perusal of the streets. So, they want to catch up on something. I'm in no rush. They were probably worried about a trap. It's not like most people expect to hear they've become marks. Well, except people like us. Us. She was surprised at herself. The colors on the ground shifted, yellow and green, then more blue. The shadows moved off to the right. She pocketed her hands and absently mirrored their movement. Red tickled her vision. She whipped her face forward, jackhammer in her chest.

She laughed at herself, hunched over like a freak. It was car taillights. Just cars. I'm overreacting. The lights playing tricks on me. She was dwelling on the murder, and it was a murder, that happened a short hour ago. When she tried to recall the scene, all she heard was that sound the man had made. Sometimes, things like that made her nervous. She wondered if it was because she had wanted to object, because it was wrong, or if it was because there was such a potential witness risk. That thinking made her sick.

"Something out there?"

"No. My imagination's workin' overtime." Nevertheless, she surveyed the buildings in front of them more carefully. Krieng followed her gaze.

"Ready to go?"

Anthony dipped his head in departure and Krieng waved and left, passing the neon sign.

"Hey, Earth to Rogue."

The jackhammer was back. A spot of red detached itself from the road and danced across Krieng's shoulder. Oh my lord, I'm not seeing things. She leapt at him, recalling belatedly that her powers were suppressed. He whipped around, mouth open, then flew back, shoulder-first into the sign with a shower of sparks. She staggered to a stop before colliding into him. She never heard the crack of gunshot.

Krieng took a deep breath and grabbed the wound before scuttling behind a parked car. She and Anthony joined him silently.

"Well, that was fun," he rumbled. "Wish I knew who did that. Break their scrawny little neck."

"Are you all right? Never min', of course y'are. Y'wouldn' be jokin' if y'weren't." She was babbling.

He let his hand drop. There was little blood, most of it congealed. An ugly scar marked the entry site. "Took care of it."

She opened her mouth to scold him, then kept it to herself. What he had done, literally reformed the organic structures of the wound, could quickly spread into a cancerous growth. It was too late to do anything about it. And it's his power. I'm sure he knows how to use it best. She offered him a hand up and the pressure on her arm was enough to remind her how much a full grown man actually weighed.

Krieng stood, hurriedly reentering the club. He did not say good-bye or good luck or see you soon. He stood and left without a backward glance. Rogue watched him leave, dangling an arm over her knee. Anthony did not seem surprised or cognizant of the other man's departure.

He put his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels. "Well, that was entertaining, wasn't it?"

She kept her face studiously blank. Generally, when the X-Men were attacked it came as a unified assault by a visible group or a long distance attack by someone so powerful that there was warning. Enemies did not snipe at them. Furthermore, it was likely that the unseen assailant knew her powers were suppressed. Therefore, any of them could have been the target. Maybe Anthony thought she had been and aware of her strength was unconcerned. That would make sense but it felt wrong. "Oh, that was charmin'."

Anthony's grin loosened into a real smile. "If you don't mind, I have to head on home. Wife's probably wondering where I am."

"But you called her."

"And we appreciate your help. We'll keep an eye out for the 'bots and say hi to the others for us."

As he abandoned her like a used tire, Rogue raised her brows and rested her temples on her knuckles. "Y'have a good night," she called after him.

She looked at her watch. It was half past six. She did not want to go back to the Mansion. There were too many reasons for anyone of the team members to detain her. Cyclops would want to know what she was doing, why, why hadn't she stayed to cooperate, why? Jean probably wanted to try a mental probe again. Betsy would help just to irritate her. Storm would back up Scott because it was proper. Remy was probably furious at her right now. She cringed at those thoughts.

Leaving had seemed a good notion at the time, a way to escape unexpected pressures but she had known it was stupid, even then. Which action would her foster mother find more inane? Running off to save old allies or staying to resolve personal issues and risking entrapment? Mystique would not care about personal issues. She never had, never did and likely never would. Except, perhaps, for Irené and Rogue doubted Mystique would ever allow herself to be hurt again.

Rogue needed to find out if Anthony Brammel was married.


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