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 23

Karolina Phillips

2/15/04

  Rogue entered soundlessly, hovering a couple of inches above the low pile carpet. She could see a clutter of furniture shapes with uneven outlines, suggesting cloth piled atop them. Towards the far wall was a narrow bed and in it was a man tangled in sheets. Either he was dozing, aware of the threat she presented, or he was genuinely asleep.

If someone asked, she might say she was acting out of self-defense, a practical desire to gain information quickly with a malicious touch. She was at the edge of the bed now and rotated so that she could reach him without any of the telltale thumps of traditional human motion. She reached out with a bare hand, towards his face, pausing.

It had lined with age and in sleep was slack, the look of gleeful malice she associated with him replaced by passive sobriety. She had always known his manner and attitude were carefully planned and calculated to annoy. There really was nothing she did not know about I-Ping Soong, real name unknown, except to him and her.

She stared at his face, knowing that on a subconscious level he was aware of her presence. His ears heard the slight noise of human breath, his eyes registered the shadows created by her body. And his mutant power would trace her electrical signature. She had no time for dawdling. Rogue tried to feel something, anything, about her intended actions, but she could not feel anything at all.

A calmness had settled around her and she remembered nights in Hong Kong. Soong had guarded her with his life, following like a shadow while she bumbled around with a near useless arm. He had always been such a kind menace, looking without seeing, accepting without judging, willing to give when she needed to take. It was a frightening sort of generosity, because he did it for the money.

So she laid a hand on his forehead, his cranium, his cerebral cortex, directly over the mass of proteins, fats, chemicals and electrical impulses that made a person who they appeared to be. He sighed and slipped deeper into sleep. She fell to the floor with ungainly noises, scraping a foot against worn carpet.

He had been dreaming and she noted, like a doctor might, that her pulse was up, that she was gasping like a fish out of water but scrabbling like a crab backwards until she hit an armoire. She arched her head back against it and tried to breathe deeply, then gave up with a sigh of her own. She closed her eyes.

Dreaming. Dreaming of Hong Kong.

Rogue came to consciousness when she heard the low hoarse chuckling of Soong followed by the squeak of bedsprings. He padded over to where she sprawled against the furniture and continued to laugh.

"So, was that-"

"Shut up you revolting pedophile." She watched him grin widely, seeing the gleam of teeth in the dim light at her lack of rancor.

"Kettle. Black." He bounced to his feet and pulled open the door she had left accessible. "Been waiting for you."

Rogue stood up, out of his way and made for a worn sofa chair in the corner. After sitting, she tried to avoid meeting his gaze, though he made little effort to meet hers. He was a short and slight man, his hair gone salt and pepper with age. In a younger life, he had been a bodyguard and assassin, rejected by his own crime family for mutation, that ultimate perversion of natural order.

"I tell you, that sure brings back memories," he chuckled again at his own joke before flashing her another smile, "doesn't it? Why, I remember when you positively made a game of pouncing on me - weren't you a rotten child, hey? I'll bet that old bitch knew about it too and not a peep out of her. A real pair, weren't they?" He finished buttoning his slacks and went in search of a belt. "She knew how you liked to troll at night, hunting alleys in Hong Kong for those things you couldn't have, takin' them from others, hey?"

She found herself staring at the end table by the bed, listening, bemused by his facile acceptance of her presence. On the table were a lamp, a telephone, a small assortment of medications, a piece of tissue paper and a glass containing a dribble of water. The humidity that had condensed on the outside formed a small puddle on the table top. She stood up, quietly and went to pick up the glass of water. She poured what was left on the carpet.

Soong was still rambling. He turned when he heard the water hit the floor. "Now, hey, there's no call to-"

Rogue crushed the glass between her hands, some of the glass falling in jagged splinters, but most being ground into grit and dust which then fell onto the wet carpet. She brushed her hands together to clean off the remaining powder, then turned, very calmly and took a step towards Soong.

He was holding very still and no longer prattling. Finally, he looked her in the eye and she saw no fear. "What do you want?"

"Nothing. Ah already took it." There was glass dust around her boots. "Ah'm sorry about that, but you were irritatin' me. Thought you shot at me last night."

I-Ping turned his back to her. "Nope. Wouldn't have missed anyway." He grinned obliquely while combing his hair. After finishing, he walked straight towards her, peered under her jacket and took the water pistol from her holster.

She watched with a vague bemusement. Why is he still standing if those poor folks in the alley are dead and Gambit passed out? Any sense of amusement she had faded. He was standing because he did not fear being subsumed.

He turned it around in his hands, then began spinning it like the toy it was. He pulled it on her with the speed of a snake, bumping her chin. "Pow! Haha!" His cheshire grin was back.

She considered. "No, not really." Clamping a head over top the barrel, she took it back from him. "But Ah know how t'play along an' it's always important t'play the right role." She realized she was still staring, trying to understand his apparent good health. Her head gradually cocked to one side with thought.

"No," he enunciated clearly.

"What?"

He raised his chin, making a moue at her. "I will not let you absorb me again so soon." He pointed at his chest. "It is bad for my constitution."

She felt her face flush in consternation.

His smile turned more smug. "And, you haven't changed. Where are you hunting tonight, girl?"

"Ah wasn't...." She sighed. "Ah'm looking for Isabel's House. Ah know it's aroun' this city somewhere but for some odd reason," she added facetiously, "Ah can't quite remember." Her glib comment drifted into a rueful grin as she headed for the door. She heard the laughter of shadows following.


She followed I-Ping out the elevator of the small apartment building, into the broad hall of the top floor. Without knocking, he waltzed through the only obvious door that did not go to an exit stairway.

He waved an arm. "Hiya guys."

She hesitated, then joined him.

Isabel's penthouse seemed normal enough. It was well appointed with all the right furnishings, of all the right quality, of all the right value and hardly anyone ever realized that her plush business chair was fully waterproof. The only reason Rogue knew was because Soong had reminded her. Isabel appeared to be a benign middle aged woman, hair gray at the temples, lines at her eyes and cheeks. Her hands were crossed politely on the table. A person would never guess that Isabel was a gelatinous mass with a tangled mane of tentacles where flatline humans had arms and legs. A person simply forgot around Isabel. It made for a remarkably lucrative brothel that was generally free from both legal and criminal interference.

Rogue sprawled on a convenient sofa couch and rubbed her bottom lip between her fingertips to conceal her unease. She had an image to maintain, after all. She scanned the room again, from behind her sunglasses. I could take them off now. Remy's gone. The whole gang was here. No, correction, they had already been here before her arrival. Well, it's always nice to know you've walked into a trap, even if it's on purpose.

To her left, Jason was an imposing presence, hulking with his arms crossed, apparently engrossed in the wall decor. Krieng sat across from her, lounging in a slump on his fautelle. Behind him, I-Ping leaned on the wall and grinned. Anthony was wandering restlessly alongside the panoramic, tinted window. Rogue noted the lack of rings on his left hand. She lipped her knuckle, unsurprised, waiting for the charade to begin.

Izzy waited for them to pay attention to her from her seat. She leaned back, placing an elbow on the armrest and leaning her chin on her curled hand. A string of water droplets collected underneath the armrest, falling split splat on the shag carpet. She smiled politely. "Well, then, now that we are all accounted for, I believe it's time we got this show on the road, as the saying goes. Brammel?"

"Hm? What?" Anthony jerked around, eyebrows raised comically for a second before checking the watch on his wrist. "Oh. Yes, yes, of course. Now would be a good time."

A hard blunt object made contact with the back of Rogue's head as she cocked it to the side, bemused by the lack of pretense. She staggered forward, tripped over the coffee table and rolled on the floor, then moaned and clutched the back of her skull. That was the trouble with nigh-invulnerability. Sometimes it only worked if she was expecting it to work. Someone male chuckled. Then fireworks went off in her brain. Sound ceased. Color and light blended together, blinded her, and she gagged. Dimly she was aware of convulsing in a seizure but slipped away before she could mark its significance.


A clipped male voice disrupted her coma. It talked, paused, then talked again. After a few minutes of lethargic observation, she identified the speaker as Jason. When she tried to roll off her side, a rope around her neck choked her. With some experimentation, she discerned that her arms were bound from wrist to elbow and hooked to a noose around her throat and another at her feet. If she stretched to untie either the wrists or ankles, she risked strangling herself. So she did not. Obviously, one of them had found a way to circumnavigate her powers, probably with a black market inhibitor. Hell, I-Ping's no Forge but he could probably make one.

A familiar feeling welled up: Fear. It was as suffocating a reality as the rope but she had no one to blame but herself. Soong and her had been allies in the past and she had continued to see their relationship that way, despite knowing better. The fear and self-recrimination turned into anger. I should have absorbed him again when he was awake. She had miscalculated the timing of their attack. They were supposed to wait. They were supposed to spend time lying to her, giving her time to judge their plan of attack. The coin had turned up heads.

All right. Enough whining. You obviously can't escape right now, so listen and think. For the first time since meeting the five, she really thought about who they were and why Mystique might have befriended them. If nothing else, thinking would allow her to ignore the headache and general unease creeping through her body like a thousand spiders. She realized that she was used to thinking of Mystique's friends as her friends and even knowing the odds favored them as enemies, she still slipped. She trained me well, didn't she? Or maybe not, since she wouldn't make a mistake like this. Despite the situation, she smiled faintly. Logan was always scolding her for over-confidence.

Krieng she already knew could kill in cold-blood, but he had to be provoked. He's probably more interested in being left alone than anything. She could only speculate about Brammel. Perhaps he genuinely wanted a measure of legitimacy. Jason was an easy guess, a man who could kill with a mere passing thought, embittered by his isolation. He was simply cruel. Izzy had her business interests to protect, didn't she? What were her business interests?

There was something important she should be remembering about Izzy. Something to do with slime and plastic coverings on all the furniture and carpet in the penthouse. It made her think of monsters and bogeymen. She frowned underneath her blindfold. What am I forgetting? Is it something she did or a result of the seizure? She tested the bonds of the rope again, a slight give this time, threads stretching.

Seizure, electricity. That must have been I-Ping's doing. That's why I feel so tired; he mucked up my brain something fierce. Not an inhibitor then. A burst of worry over its effect on her power was crushed back. There was no time for that and her powers would soon return. From her vantage point, she could hear the scrape of tread over cement. Someone with a light springy step approached her and the buzzing in her head grew worse, shrieking through her eardrums with the flow of blood.

"Hey, gang, Ms. Hero waking up."

There was something she could not remember.

"What? Oh, damn."

"What's the problem? We're in position."

"Should I carry out the next objective?"

She ignored them. There was something important she needed to remember.

"Hey, girl, you gonna try an' play dead?" I-Ping snorted quietly.

She squeezed her eyes shut and kept her breathing steady when a hand unbuttoned her shirt. I-Ping fondled her breast and when she did not respond, pinched her nipple. That hurt, asshole. She could deal with this too. The guards on Genosha had done worse. Just think about anything. Ping's thing is children. He'll probably get bored of me.

"Stubborn, hey?" He chuckled again. "You all grown up. Damn shame. You were cute kid."

You should've met my uncle, Ping. You two could've had a conversation on the merits of children. She kept talking to herself, working up a defensive rage. She remembered doing the same thing when she was younger, running with the Brotherhood. Whenever she had gotten intimidated, she would think of something that emptied her mind of rational thought. It was a way to avoid taking responsibility and she had known it then as well as now. It was a bit like asking, what would Jesus do, but with more grim side effects.

What would my power do?

She tested her bonds, restless, her arms twitching. Her power said that these people had no names, merely roles. A pervert with an inferiority complex, a manipulative user, a killer, a leech and a gambler made five. Her power, lurking beneath consciousness, insisted that was all that mattered. They're all scum. And I was protecting them from Clive. Why? Just because they lead back to Tori and Tori leads back to Mystique? If these are the kind of people she calls friends.... Mystique, for all her faults, was family. Rogue still had to stop Clive, but that did not mean she had to worry about these five any longer.

She stopped trying to remember the mystery fact. On the back of the blindfold, she swore she saw a swarm of tiny baraccuda like vicious krill ferociously attacking a prehistoric shark. She heard a click and the sound of cloth. Someone she guessed was Jason came in her direction. She was astonished to hear a muffled thud and angry shout from I-Ping.

"Hey! What the hell? It's no big deal. She gonna be dead soon, anyway. What difference it make?"

"Shut up. You know we're supposed to avoid traumatizing her. She needs to do her job and she can't if she's having hysterics."

"Ah, fuck it.You goddamn fuckin' moron. You think she gonna have a fit over that? Bah. You don' know her so good, eh?" The voice developed a snarl. "I tell you something, I was doing your job before you born you little prick!"

"Shut up, both of you."

Rogue started to shake. Something wasn't right. They were going to kill her, which she had known earlier but now knew with a numbing certainty. But not yet? And there were spiders behind her eyes. She could hear them all around her like a thousand whispering voices and five very close ones, five very loud ones.

I-Ping did not say anything else as he left her side. Right now she would rejoice to see the X-Men burst into the room and save her hide. Now, what job is it that I'm supposed to do? Why are they keeping me live, sane and whole? Because...? Because I'm their buffer from Clive. Oh hell. She heard herself swear aloud. This whole thing was-

"Isabel Mendez?"

"Yes, Jason?"


The warehouse door was rusted and stubborn. Clive melted a hole through it and floated into the dark storage space, boot jets flaring. There were windows so he did not turn on his spotlight, opting for infrared. It would not give him the color detail, but he likely would not need it. There were five individuals in this warehouse but according to the heat index, four had been dead for at least an hour. Three male, one female, he estimated. He could not be sure on the last gender. She appeared to be a slug like blue-green mass rather than human, but his scanners indicated that she was indeed homo sapien. Bits of her were splattered in a five foot radius. A bit of electronic equipment was embedded in her side. An image inducer. So that was Isabel Mendez.

Next was a moderately overweight man in a suit. He had a cane poked through his eye pinning him to the floor. There was no file match for him. Must be a spot on the wall mutant. Stayed low and out of Bastion's attention. Slumping against a support column was a large man who had been shot seven times. A small file identified him as Tham Kriengchaiyapruk, jailed once at nineteen for manslaughter, no other criminal record. Further in the back of the building was the body of I-Ping Soong. His record yielded one count of possession, three for molestation, and one for battery. All charges dropped. Hm. He had been beaten to death from the looks of it. Clive floated closer. He had also been castrated.

Clive supported his right elbow with an arm folded against his chest. He studied the tableau below him pensively. Generally speaking, only women castrated a male victim, often in retaliation of sexual assault. It would have taken a fair amount of physical strength to impale someone on a wooden cane. Both of those pointed towards Rogue, except she was wearing an inhibitor. On the other hand, Rogue was also carrying a firearm. Two of the victims had been shot to death and her past supported her culpability. Then there was Auspach. Unfortunately, there were several power signatures in this room. It was hard to tell which signature belonged to which mutant.

The fifth individual who was hiding behind a stack of crates stepped into the open. Clive watched covertly as the mutant worked his way over to the battle site. He was hunched over and had a heavy limp. Clive pivoted calmly to face his last target. There was no data on the last mutant, only what his sensors told him.

Auspach was physically average in that he appeared fully humanoid with no strange coloration or configurations. He was fully armed and armored which suggested a non-combatative or short distance mutant power. He appeared to be severely wounded in the middle thigh, blood soaked down to his boot despite binding. There appeared to be another wound to his chest or abdomen. His temperture was a degree too low but he sweated profusely. He was probably no threat.

Clive crossed his arms patiently. The mutant must know that his life depended on a satisfactory explanation of his continuing good health. The injured man glanced up and in that moment Clive saw dilated but intelligent eyes and a face slack with pain or shock.

"You were following us earlier. Saw you in the air."

"Yes."

The mutant gulped air and staggered over to a support column to lean against it. He kept one arm wrapped around his midsection and slumped. "Didn't think Sentinels kept their prey alive."

"I'm not a Sentinel. I'm a trained federal agent."

"Were."

"Yes."

"So you here to arrest me for something?"

"There's no such thing as civlian arrest, especially without cause." Clive cast a look around at the bodies as if to confirm his earlier assessment. "I've taken a visual of this site and you. Don't attempt escape before or when the police arrive. It'd be an exercise in futility."

The man's mouth thinned. "Not my work. You were following. You saw the other woman. She's not here. I'm am and hurt. Why don't you put the blame where it belongs?"

Clive considered the obvious. The weapons the mutant wore gave off residual heat, so they had been fired, but he could not tell how many times. There could be contusions underneath the man's body armor, or there might not. "What caused the injury to your torso?"

"Gun fire."

"Is it bleeding?"

"Yeah."

"Why didn't she kill you?"

The man grinned fiercely. "Bitch couldn't get close enough."

Clive allowed his face to crack into a return smile. The mutant was wearing heavy weight synthetic armor. Nothing but high-powered ammo at point blank could penetrate enough to cause serious injury aside from bruising. Rogue was carrying a paltry semi-automatic pistol. "In that case, could you tell me where she went?"

"Figure she'll go back home now that she's done her good deed for the month."

That was not a definitive answer, but it was likely the truth. Rogue was either heading back to Salem Center or his own house in West Virginia. How horrible. But, in his surveillance, he had noticed that she was not behaving in a particularly militant or wary manner. Her performance had been perfunctory at best. Too bad for her.

"Thank you. I suggest you head for a hospital if you're severely injured. And, do be careful, gut wounds are hazardous."

The mutant nodded and dragged himself out of the warehouse. Clive watched him leave, then made a show of flying up and away, keeping a discreet eye on his target. Below him he saw the man pick up his pace and fall into a jog.


Gambit waited until the mercenary and the cyborg both left the scene. He sat on a dilapitated crate tucked between two dumpsters. In just a minute or two, he would get up and begin the chore of walking. That was when he heard the distinct, punctuated rumble of an unbaffled motorcycle.

He expelled a breath, dropping his head. Sapriste. "Didn't expect you so soon, old man."

"What're you doing here, LeBeau?"

"Takin' care of family."

"Oh yeah? Be news to me."

"Well, ya know what we like t'say: By blood, by marriage an' by the back door."

"You gonna try and stop me, kid?"

"Non. Won't have to."

"You think I don't know you been following me?" Logan leaned his elbows on the handlebars of his bike. "So how about you explain how y'got here first, this time?"

"A trail of kinetic energy be pretty easy t'follow wit' my power, bete noir."

Logan curled his lip further, revealing the tips of unnaturally long canines. "Ya talkin' about me or Rogue? Think hard before y'answer, 'cause that girl needs to be brought in before something worse goes down."

"Not all devils be demons, Wolverine." He let his eyes flash so the older man could see his anger. Let him think he had the upper hand. Let him think that the young pup was all growls and bluster. Age did bring experience, but it also brought inflexibility. Remy snorted. "Yeah, ya the best as what y'do. Problem is, it the only thing ya know how t'do." He spit noisely on the filth etched ground. "Idiot. You and the X-Men both, tryin' not to get y'hands dirty, drivin' away the ones who really need help. Like y'got no concept of loyalty, always takin' care of y'own." He shook his head, slowly, tired, knowing his words were unheard.

He heard the scrape of a kickstand on pavement, the soft creaks of metal as Logan's bike was tilted to a rest. Remy watched the older man walk towards the warehouse doors for a moment, then rose to follow. There was something he needed to do.

Wolverine extended the claws from his wrists, the silver metal gleaming wetly with plasma. His head was low, nose and jaw thrust forward as he entered the warehouse. He slowed into the measured stalk of a cat, disappearing into the interior gloom. Gambit followed at a casual distance, tracing the man's movement kinetically. The darkness was no threat to him.

He smelled the bodies, the blood and charred flesh before they registered as dull glimmers of residual living energy. One was scattered in bits and pieces, like dull red confetti to his eyes. There was nothing alive here. There were no active energy sources except for him and Logan. He had not expected any.

"Shit," snarled Wolverine. "Nothing but meat left."

Gambit watched as Logan examined each body by turn, accepting that Wolverine's true night vision was superior than his own under these circumstances. "What do ya see?"

"Bullet wounds. Blunt trauma. Someone went to town here, LeBeau."

Remy sensed the gaze on him. He shrugged a shoulder, laconically. "But there's only four of 'em, neh? I counted five, six wit' Rogue."

A grunt. "An' maybe one of them 'sides her had the strength to do this? Not unless he was a pretty big guy."

Making a decision, Gambit strolled into the center of the slaughter house, picking up a certain pistol along the way. "Want to know somethin' ol' man?" When his question was met with silence, he continued. "I knew where she was 'cause I bugged this gun. Now," he crouched down, placing the firearm on the floor, "I figure she's smarter 'an t'leave a murder weapon behin'. So," he began to convert the potential energy of the pistol and the floor underneath it into kinetic energy, "non, I don' t'ink she did it."

"The fuck...." Wolverine froze, facing Gambit, then sprang into a flat run, out and away from the warehouse.

Gambit smiled, thinly, sank his hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat, and followed at a more leisurely pace. Behind him, the warehouse was enveloped by a fireball of energy, followed by a near solid wave of outward expanding kinetic fallout and finally, the roar of an explosion.


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