Then You Win
"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win."
So many people seem to assume that the difficulty with her telepathy is in reaching out, that it's a strain to contact someone a mile or so away. Maybe it's like that for Emma, but for Charlotte, the difficulty is not in reaching out, but in limiting it. When she froze the CIA, the trick came in freezing only those she wanted to and not every single person within a five mile radius.
So now, the problem is not contacting the men on those ships, but in ensuring she doesn't blanket anyone on the beach or in Cuba within her telepathic grasp.
Charlotte closes her eyes and reaches out with a single, unshakeable command. STOP.
They do. She can feel it, and it's difficult to keep her touch light, to just shut down their conscious actions rather than their heartbeats or their breathing or any other of the dozen autonomous functions the human body must perform to keep living.
"They've stopped." Erik's voice sounds strangely muffled to Charlotte's ears.
I'VE STOPPED THEM. She really wishes she could spare the energy right now to control her mental touch a little better, but she doesn't dare.
No one moves, but she can feel the desperate need to take several large steps away from her, the pulses of fear/anger/wariness/how is she doing that? that rise around her like heat shimmers from a baking road. The teleporter (Azazel) isn't the only one considering an escape, but he's the only one she has to worry about.
STAY WHERE YOU ARE.
All ideas of teleporting himself away vanish in the rush of fear/panic/she knows, she knows/mustn't anger her. Charlotte knows he's remembering what he's seen Emma do, and is all-but trembling at the evidence that her own power so outstrips Emma's. Perhaps she should reassure him – and the wind-maker (Janos), and Angel – that she's not going to hurt them…but then again, they hurt her friends, so perhaps they can stew for a little while.
She tries to narrow the focus of her telepathy to the people on the boats tasked with communication while still keeping the others frozen, which is…more difficult than she would have expected, like plucking an individual snowflake out of a snowstorm. But Charlotte knows how to do this, she has grown up doing this, and she will do it…
She does it. In the seething maelstrom out there, she finds the two minds she wants, the Russian and American with direct lines to their respective governments, in charge of relaying any changed orders the moment the political climate should alter in any way. Not exactly standard military protocol, but these are unusual and rather fraught circumstances.
Of course, once she's found them, it's relatively easy. Relatively easy to make them contact who she wants them to, to make speak the words she wants them to speak. Relatively, because it's still difficult not to make everyone else on the ship attempt to do the same.
I am not the person you believe you're speaking to. I am one of the mutants you just tried to kill. And I am suggesting you reconsider your strategy.
I understand that fear can lead to impulsive and, upon reflection, foolish decisions. I hope that was all that this was. Because if this was the first push towards war, whether open or subvert…then understand, we will push back. And we are more powerful than you've ever suspected. Think long and hard before you make an enemy of us,
But if you want to talk, I'll be very happy to listen. And one last warning – I will know if you're sincere.
Short, simple and almost painfully direct. She thinks Erik would be pleased.
Charlotte takes a deep breath – or at least, she feels her body take a deep breath, but the sensation is rather muted – and gives the men in the ships one last order.
She burrows it in deep, ensures the compulsion won't lift until they're back in the harbour, and turns her attention to the last, most difficult task.
She stretches her mind towards America, towards the CIA and the government, towards everyone who has ever interacted with them or checked their criminal backgrounds or even glanced at their files. It's a long way, and the wider her telepathy spreads the louder the minds between her and them become, until it's like she's trying to track a sibilant whisper through a rock concert. That was Cerebro's real gift – the ability to narrow her focus, to hear only the mutants without picking up on all the humans between her and them.
Well, there's no Cerebro now – Charlotte is on her own.
Her head is starting to throb, and it almost feels like her brain is swelling inside her skull, and Charlotte knows that's her telepathy coming up against the limits of her body, but she can't listen to that – she's been telling everyone else to push their limits, while she did nothing to even put a toe outside her own comfortable boundaries.
But now, Charlotte pushes. Pushes in a way she didn't know she could do, in a way that she was afraid to do. She's aware of her body (still standing on the beach as the ships turn away from them, back the way they came) but that awareness is secondary to the sheer weight of the minds pressing into her. It's like her mind is physically drifting away, a helium balloon tethered to her body by only a flimsy string.
Charlotte really hopes that string doesn't snap.
She's not sure how long she searches – it could be days, weeks – but the first thing Charlotte's telepathy taught her was patience. Patience to build her shields so they didn't crumble at the first push of a strong emotion. Patience to drag her mind into something resembling order when said shields were punctured or outright shattered by nearby horrific experiences (granted, supremely happy experiences can so the same, but Charlotte's never minded those instances quite so much). It's exhausting – not physical exhaustion, but the deep mental exhaustion that makes your brain feel like it's been squeezed out like a dirty sponge, that every nerve and synapse has died and you'll never have a coherent thought again…but whenever Charlotte feels like admitting defeat, like turning away and retreating, she simply can't. Deep inside the tangled chaos that has become her mind, something nudges her onward, something supports her and soothes her and drives her onwards.
And in spite of the disorientation and the flood of minds and memories and people (ChristieThomasAlbertoSophiaK ellyNoreenClaytonMelissaAlla nMaxDerekSamanthaAshleyRowan so many, too many), eventually, Charlotte finds what she's looking for.
And she erases it.
In the CIA headquarters and in various government branches across America, employees delete files, destroy hard drives and burn files in office bins. If they are questioned, they will never remember doing it, but they won't be questioned, because no one sees them or even realises anything has gone missing.
The memories are more difficult, requiring a finer touch, because Charlotte can't simply erase them entirely. People need to remember 'the mutants', need to know they're out there (and exactly how very bad it will be to persecute them)…but they won't remember their names, or their faces, only vague impressions – shadows and echoes, nothing more substantial.
She finds Emma, and in spite of her crimes, Charlotte can't leave the other telepath prisoner to captors who have forgotten she existed. Besides, she was immersed in Emma's mind once, and that creates a connection (even when she doesn't want it to); it's no coincidence that Charlotte hasn't referred to Emma as 'Frost' since she broke into the other telepath's mind.
She's not sure if Emma's had time to rebuild her shields – what Charlotte had done was meant as a temporary measure only – and there certainly seems to be some resistance there, before Charlotte sweeps it aside like dust.
Emma is frightened, panicked, and lashes out instinctively, and though it made her stagger and reel only a few months ago, now…now, Charlotte barely feels it. It's like the bite of a mosquito – annoying and momentarily painful, but nowhere near as crippling as she remembers.
LISTEN TO ME!
Charlotte really wishes she could turn that off somehow.
Emma stops her feeble attempts to resistance, but her mind still shivers with fear/panic/awe/what happened?/how is this possible?
Xavier? What happened to you?
This is only reinforcing the vague feeling Charlotte has that she's broken through something, done something that maybe even a telepathic brain isn't built to take.
It started in anger, yes, anger at the betrayal, that those they had saved would turn on them, but anger is precious little fuel on which to run; it flashes like a firework and burns out just as quickly. It has to harden into icy resentment or hatred before it can become a true driving force, and her anger was gone the moment she turned those ships away.
Anger couldn't have seen her through the maelstrom, couldn't have given her the strength to plunge into the seething morass that is the entire country and find the people she wanted to find. What drives Charlotte is not anger, or even fear…it is purpose, plain and simple. She has a task, and it must be completed.
Millions, tens of millions of minds are still howling around her like a hurricane, but somehow she's in the eye of it, possessed by a determination terrifying in its intensity. She feels the thoughts hum and buzz and throb, a living, moving ocean that passes into her and through her but it doesn't drown her – this single, shining purpose burns them all to steam.
She will protect the people she loves. All of them. No matter the cost.
YOU WILL LEAVE, she tells Emma. WALK OUT NOW. NO ONE WILL STOP YOU. NO ONE WILL HUNT YOU. DO NOT HURT ANYONE AND DO NOT RETURN FOR VENEGANCE.
Yes, yes of course. Whatever you want. Emma is practically falling over herself to agree, her terror of Charlotte saturating every pulse and whisper of her thoughts.
The last time she spoke to Emma, the blonde had been smug, gloating even though she was a captive, confident that there was nothing they could do to her that she hadn't suffered before. Now she is all-but grovelling before Charlotte, eager to appease, desperate not to gain her anger.
Emma wasn't even this frightened of Shaw. Charlotte wonders what that says about her, about what she has become, that she can inspire this kind of terror.
She hangs on just long enough to ensure Emma has made it to relative safety (no one will be following her, but Charlotte wants to make sure), then Charlotte slowly begins to draw herself back to her body.
It's strange. She's never done this with her telepathy before, never reached so far or done so much, and pulling herself back to her body feels almost like she's diminishing herself, like curling into a too-tight cage or forcing herself into clothes three sizes too small.
Her head hurts. It seemed insignificant when she was doing…what she was doing, nothing more than those little nagging aches you get if you've stayed awake too long. But now that she is back (back in her body, as if she'd gone somewhere and how had she done that? What has she just done?), it feels like her skull is moving inwards, crushing her brain in a vice.
When she opens her eyes, Charlotte's surprised to find that everyone's still where they were. She's still standing on the beach, and the ships are still in the process of turning around.
She'd thought it had taken her hours, at the very least, to do what she'd done. Maybe even days. Instead, it took her perhaps two minutes, at the very most.
Everyone is staring at her. Moira's fingers are clenched at the base of her throat, around her dog tags. Hank and Alex are supporting Sean between them, and they she knows they're not sure whether they should step closer or step away. All of Shaw's people are unanimous in their desire to be elsewhere, away from the woman who can turn armies aside with a single thought.
Raven's hands are clamped over her mouth, and even though her thoughts screech with fear there is worry threaded there as well, worry for Charlotte, if she's alright because she's gone pale and her eyes aren't focusing properly.
Erik is standing beside her, one hand cupping her elbow to support her, and the bond…actually, the bond is wide open, and Charlotte wonders what he felt of her mental voyage, what his mind could process of it. She remembers the support she felt, the soothing presence that wouldn't let her give up, wouldn't let her surrender, and she knows – she knows because she can feel it – that it was Erik, refusing to abandon her, refusing to let her face it alone.
"What did you do?" Alex asks quietly, and Charlotte is uncomfortable with the awe in his voice.
I MADE US SAFE.
Charlotte is starting to wonder if she's permanently broken whatever kind of control she had over her telepathic communication.
"Charlotte?" Raven's whole mind is thrumming with confusion/fear/worry/is she alright?/was she hurt?
Charlotte takes a step towards her…or at least, she tries to. Her legs move sluggishly, like that strange disconnection between her mind and her body is still in effect, and her sense of balance doesn't compensate quickly enough. She wobbles, tries to put one leg back to stabilise herself and shift some of her weight to Erik's hand, but it responds too slowly.
The last thing Charlotte is aware of is Erik catching her before she hits the sand.
"Do you think she's alright?" Raven asks.
Erik hates how everyone always asks him this – like he has some great insight into how telepathy works and can tell them if Charlotte is slipping into a coma or if she's just getting some much-needed rest.
Granted, the bond means he'll probably know if she starts to die, but he's doing his best not to think about that.
"I don't know," Erik repeats for what must be the twelfth time.
But he can't bring himself to be angry, not when Raven is so clearly terrified for Charlotte. But Erik supposes they all are – he may not be Charlotte, but he recognises fear when he sees it.
Hank is all-but locked in his lab, studying whatever brain scans he managed to salvage from Cerebro, insisting he can find something in them that will somehow help. Moira is obsessively cleaning and organising the entire mansion, even the rooms they never bothered to open, as though she thinks Charlotte will wake up if the place is just a little bit tidier. Alex seems to be single-handedly trying to burn all of the mansion's uglier furniture, and it's similar enough to Erik's own impulse to destroy everything with even a trace of metal in it that he can recognise Alex just wants to be left alone. He's less sure about Sean though. Sean will spend hours alone in his room but will attach himself to Moira at random intervals and follow her for hours trying to 'help' in her clean-up mission. He won't spend more than a few moments in Charlotte's room but he'll nag them incessantly for updates at mealtimes.
Frankly, Erik has no idea how to deal with any of it, so he's keeping his distance.
It's been three days since they came back. Since the teleporter took them from the beach and broken wreckage of their plane to the mansion's neatly-trimmed lawn.
The others wondered why he did that, but Erik understands. They'd just seen Charlotte turn hundreds of people into puppets, sweeping their own wills aside like they were nothing – Azazel (apparently, that's his name) wants someone like that thinking well of him. He probably hopes this deed will compensate for his previous animosity – it's just common sense.
Erik understands it, but it doesn't mean he likes it. It's cowardice, plain and simple – siding with the strongest person in the hopes that they won't crush you.
Still, it got Charlotte off that beach, so he's not complaining too loudly.
But when Azazel left, no one was quite sure what to do. Erik carried Charlotte into the house and laid her out on her bed. They'd considered the hospital, but Moira had vetoed that, saying that they were probably on some kind of watch list, and Charlotte would get carted away to some government lab (which is not happening on Erik's watch). And it's not like the doctors would have known what to do anyway. Their best guess is that this is some kind of telepathic overload, and their initial (and overly optimistic) theory was that Charlotte only needed to sleep it off.
When she hadn't stirred fourteen hours later, they realised this was much deeper than over-exhaustion.
Moira had risked contacting some of her friends in the CIA, trying to determine what had been done with Emma, and if there was any way they could somehow use her to help Charlotte.
She'd reported back with startling news.
"Emma's gone," Moira sighs, slumping into the couch.
Their impromptu strategy meeting is taking place in the same living room where they first realised they were going to try to stop a war, and if Erik was a poetic sort of man he's sure he'd see some parallel in that.
"She escaped?" Sean yelps.
Moira shakes her head. "Not that simple. She's gone…and so are all of you."
"Explain." Erik knows he should probably be politer – she's helping them, after all – but Charlotte's still unconscious and a possible door to helping her has just been slammed in their face which means he's not happy with anything or anyone right now.
"Every record of you is gone," Moira says bluntly. "No one can recall who you are or where you come from or even what you look like. All of you."
While some part of Erik relaxes at the knowledge that government agents aren't about to storm the mansion (he'd been seriously concerned about that, enough to plot out escape routes and contingency plans), the rest of him goes still and silent. Now he knows what's happened, something in him trembles in awe at the thought of Charlotte reaching so far, through so many minds to finds the ones she wanted.
He'd felt her desperation through the bond and assumed she was struggling to control the sailors. He'd tried to send feelings of love and support, tried to lend her his strength for whatever she might need, but he had never suspected she was doing…anything like that.
Erik knows Raven's figured it out by the way she looks at him, yellow eyes wide with realisation. "She said she made us safe…"
A horrified silence descends, but only for a moment.
"Holy shit!" Alex blurts. "Holy shit! She really…holy shit!"
Hank presses clawed fingers to his temples, looking like his mind is struggling to grasp the kind of power it would have taken for Charlotte to do that.
Moira is muttering to herself, like she's trying to keep herself from panicking. "They can't know – they can never know. They'll lock her in a cage. They'll experiment on her. Or kill her. Probably kill her. They can't know-"
"Could she always do that?" Sean asks quietly.
He sounds almost betrayed, and Erik knows what he's really asking. If Charlotte could always do that, what was the point of having them come with her, of training them, of finding them in the first place? If Charlotte was powerful enough to make two opposing armies sail away from each other, why didn't she do that from the start?
"I don't think she knew," Raven sighs. "Charlotte, she…she's always been so afraid of her telepathy, she never really tried to find out what she could really do."
Erik remembers Charlotte telling him about Cain, about how she never truly tested the offensive capabilities of her telepathy after that, too frightened of the damage she might do.
"Studies have shown that adrenaline can enhance physical strength and speed," Hank comments, his voice soft and contemplative. "It's likely the same for our mutations."
The others are nodding, making little murmurs of agreement, but Erik isn't entirely convinced. From what Charlotte's told him about telepathy, and from the memories he experienced through the bond, blurring those memories would have taken more concentration and focus than sheer power.
But he doesn't say anything – just leaves to check on Charlotte once again.
Erik knows, logically, that he doesn't have to stay in Charlotte's room – the bond will tell him the instant she begins waking up – but he can't help but think that she'll wake up more quickly if she knows they're waiting for her. So Erik stays and reads aloud from the books that show the most signs of wear in the spine and thus are probably Charlotte's favourites.
The catheter was set up on the first day, courtesy of Hank – apparently he had a lot of medical know-how in that enormous brain of his – and the IV was set up twenty-three hours ago, to ensure Charlotte isn't going to die of dehydration. Hank's talking about a feeding tube as well, 'in case this comatose state persists'.
Comatose state. Like he has any idea what's going on, like any of them have any idea what's happening. Erik has a better idea than most – the bond sees to that, but all he feels through that is the kind of drowsy pull and dull murmurs of activity he feels when Charlotte's sleeping.
That should probably give him hope – if she's sleeping, she has to wake up, doesn't she? – but the bond doesn't get any response from her either. Erik has spent the past two days calling down it, then sending Charlotte all his fear and anger in the hope that she'll respond to his distress even if she doesn't respond to her name.
But nothing's worked. Charlotte isn't waking.
Raven leaves for her own bedroom at nine, but Erik lingers, still reading, until well past midnight, when he leaves for the room across the hall. He doesn't think he'll fall asleep, but he finds himself jerking awake in the darkness, the clock telling him it's half-past three in the morning, and his pulse thrumming for no reason he can determine.
Has he heard something? The house is quiet, but Erik rises anyway – he's learned to trust his instincts. He's pulling the edge of the curtain aside to check the grounds when he feels it; a faint, barely perceptible tug on the bond, like Charlotte is gently tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention.
Hardly daring to believe, Erik marshals his thoughts into something like coherency, and sends a tentative question.
Erik, why did I wake up with an IV and a catheter?
Anyone else might be embarrassed about the way he slams open the door, but Erik's not the sort of person to get embarrassed about things like that. His reaction is entirely appropriate to the situation.
Charlotte is stepping out of the ensuite bathroom, looking very unsteady on her legs – like a still-wet calf trying to toddle after its mother. She's holding a ball of cotton wool over the back of her hand, where the IV needle had pierced her skin.
For a moment, Erik does nothing but stare at her, a quick visual check to ensure that yes, this is Charlotte and yes, in spite of the inevitable muscle weakness she doesn't seem to have any problems coordinating herself so it looks like she's avoided the possible brain or nerve damage Hank was worried about.
Then he's across the room and she's in his arms, and he's probably holding her a bit too tightly but he doesn't care because that was too damn close, way too close and she can't do that to him, dammit, she just can't…
Erik, it's alright, Charlotte's mental touch whispers through his mind, the first active outreach after three days of mental starvation, and Erik almost wants to close his eyes to bask in the feeling of her mind slipping against his, warm and thrumming and so clearly alive.
He can feel the moment she realises she's been unconscious for three days – a burst of comprehension/understanding/sympathy/oh, that's why.
At least that explains the IV and catheter, Charlotte quips.
Erik pulls back to glance at her hand, but the pinprick has already clotted, and Charlotte drops the blood-spotted cotton into the bin beside her desk.
I think I'd like to sit down, Charlotte says.
Erik doesn't need to feel the weariness/frustration/I've only been on my feet for a minute! to know that Charlotte's having trouble standing. He eases her back to the bed, settling her against his chest the way he did that night when she read to him about DNA and mutations and he only vaguely understood what she was talking about, but listened more for the pleasure and fascination that had rung through her voice and mind both.
"Are you hungry?" he asks quietly, when she rests her head against his collarbone with a sigh.
Not really. I had a few mouthfuls of water in the bathroom, but I don't actually feel like eating anything.
Erik supposes that's just as well. After three days without sustenance, she should probably start slowly, eating soft and bland food.
Charlotte picks up the thought and Erik can feel her disgruntlement. I don't like porridge.
"We do actually have honey and sugar," he reminds her (sometimes it still feels strange to know that he has those kind of luxuries on hand), and he feels her distaste settle into more general grumbling.
Erik knows he should probably wake the others up, but he remembers how frightened and wary they were when they understood what Charlotte had done, and he just…doesn't want them here. Charlotte seems strangely vulnerable, minutely shifting against him and flexing her hands and legs as though she's re-acquainting herself with her own body, and she shouldn't have to deal with that right now.
Erik lets her wind their fingers together, trying to force the small, panicked animal that's been clawing at his chest for the past three days to calm. "Why were you asleep for so long?"
I think my brain was…adjusting. Erik can feel Charlotte searching for the correct word, knows that she's not certain 'adjusting' truly applies but unable to explain it any other way.
What happened on the beach? she asks, and though Erik knows she could just pluck memory from his mind, he's starting to think this is the telepathic version of polite courtesy.
"You won," he says bluntly.
Because it's not 'we', it's 'you'. Whatever Charlotte did, she did it alone.
She shifts against him, almost fidgeting, and Erik can feel her uncertainty, her bewilderment and the low, flashing strobe of her fear. Fear at what she did, at what she's capable of.
You know, there are theories that the brain isn't fully matured until we're about twenty-five.
The words and information are clean and bland, as though she's deliberately trying to scrub away any emotion that might be linked to them but Erik knows what she's in trying to say. That perhaps her telepathy only came into its full maturation when she was twenty-five…but by then, she was strictly controlling herself, afraid of what she could do.
Charlotte had never found the limits of her power, because there had never been a need to. And when there was a need, when she'd stripped her own limitations away…
I think the bond helped too, Charlotte's thought intruded into Erik's contemplation. I don't think it would have been possible without it, actually. Erik, you…you kept me grounded, stopped me from forgetting who I was. There were so many minds, around me and through me and inside me…but I was able to keep my identity separate from them. I knew I was Charlotte Xavier, because you knew it.
The depths of those implications leave Erik a little uncomfortable, and he knows Charlotte can feel how quickly he steers the conversation elsewhere.
"Moira told us about the ultimatum you gave them."
How did she know?
"She seems to have friends everywhere. Friends who, when push comes to shove, are more loyal to her than their superiors." And Erik can admit he admires that – Moira does what the situation requires, and uses whatever tools at hand to do so. Moira needs to keep tabs on what the CIA is doing, so that's exactly what she does, without any hysterics or grief about perceived betrayals – it's very refreshing.
That's one of the reasons I like her, yes. Charlotte feels ever-so slightly smug, probably because Erik has been rather bewildered at the friendship she cultivated with a human government agent, but now…well, now Erik can see how similar Charlotte and Moira are.
But he still feels the need to warn her – she may have put two world powers in their place, but that's no guarantee of safety. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite; now they've got a spotlight on them. "You know it could go either way now, don't you?"
Charlotte nods, her hair slithering against his neck. Yes – they may step back and approach us peacefully, or they may only come down on us all the harder. But either way, we have drawn the line. We've taken a stand, and now we have to show them that we will not run, that we will not be persecuted.
Erik remembers a conversation in a government-issue car, seeking out an older mutant who hadn't wanted anything to do with them. "Aggressively peaceful?"
Charlotte huffs a quiet sigh, and turns her face against his neck. Erik presses his lips to her temple just because it's there, and he can. Her mind is humming with affection and love and pride, and Erik can admit he's practically basking in it because Charlotte's here, she's awake and she's alright…
But then suddenly she's not alright, because a dark wave of fear dims the happy glow. Erik, I reached across hundreds of miles and manipulated minds like they were toys. And the effort was in finding them, in only erasing what I wanted to and not wiping them entirely – it would have been effortless to destroy them. Erik…Emma Frost was scared of me; what does that make me?
In some ways, Erik can understand her worry. If Charlotte ever gets it into her head that she always knows best, that her way is always the right way no matter what anyone says…well, she'll make Shaw look like a joke. She can bring world leaders to their knees, manipulate people like puppets and ensure they never even know she's done it.
But in the end, she's still Charlotte. That's why Erik tried to wake her up, rather than take the chance to kill her while she slept. That's why the others haven't turned away, for all that they're clearly afraid of what she can do.
"You're Charlotte Francine Xavier," he says quietly. "You're what you've always been."
And Charlotte actually laughs.
AN: A big round of applause for my beta, ginbitch, who helped me start, conceive and finish this story! And thanks to everyone who stuck with me.