"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"
Alice said "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, about you!" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"
"Where I am now, of course," said Alice.
"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!"
"If that there King was to wake," added Tweedledum, "you'd go out – bang! – just like a candle!"
"I shouldn't!" Alice exclaimed indignantly. "Besides, if I'm only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?"
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
Modeh ani lifanekha melekh hai v'kayam shehehezarta bi nishmahti b'hemlah, rabah emunatekha.
I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.
Modeh Ani, a Jewish prayer recited daily upon waking, while still in bed
Charles met Shaw's fire with ice.
Blue hot and crackling with power, a sheet of flame blazed at the border of Shaw's mind to keep intruders out; a surprising natural defense, Shaw's powers coming up to protect him from telepaths the only way he knew how, attempting to keep them from causing him harm. It was a good protection, fierce and unrelenting, and had snapped into place the moment Erik had taken the helmet that had so utterly hidden Shaw's mind. The movement obviously well-practiced, probably due to the presence of Shaw's own telepath; Shaw wouldn't have wanted his plans taken from him even by his own ally, the wintry Emma Frost. The protection was successful in blocking Charles' entrance before the telepath even knew that Shaw was vulnerable.
None of that stopped Charles from ripping through it.
After all, Charles of all people knew how the mind could be used as a weapon.
His mind, already cast out and questing for Shaw's, heard Erik's roared, "Now, Charles!" and dove for the burning mind before it could disappear again. Shaw's thoughts were unmistakable beneath the flames, all nuclear sludge and poisonous radiation, thick on the back of Charles' throat like an ember threatening to eat him from the inside out. It was a strong mind, forged with the energy released when atoms split, and it refused to waver even now when he was at Erik's mercy. Charles' body shuddered imperceptibly, lips parting slightly in a little gasp as he prepared to invade Shaw's body and turn it into his own, hoping he wouldn't have to sink into Shaw's mire for long, unwilling to touch those dangerous thoughts and emotions for more than necessary.
He brought up the essence of ice, of that searing, bone-deep cold, and wrapped it around himself like a cloak, protecting his mind from the dangerous heat that was intended block him like Frost's diamond form. He careened into that fire, still sheltered in the deep chill of winter, and turned Shaw's carefully wrought mental barrier to steam.
The air blew outwards like an explosion, scalding heat billowing forward as Charles flew through it and barreled into Shaw's mind, making the other man recoil from the backlash. No matter how much his own natural defenses protected him, Shaw was no telepath and was unprepared for the force with which Charles quenched the fire and spread out his presence within the confines of Shaw's skull.
Once inside, Charles immediately located the centers of the brain that controlled motor function with the ease of long practice and seized them with iron fingers; he almost jerked back out of reflex when his mind sank into Shaw's, the darkness of Shaw's intentions reaching up to cling to Charles, to drag him into the greedy, choking muck. He gripped Shaw's movements, voluntary and involuntary, all the harder, freezing him with enough force that Shaw couldn't even manage a breath on his own, flexing with Shaw's mind to prevent escape.
If I am to fall, you're coming with me. Shaw's mind used the words as a blast of pure energy, his own mutant powers coming to his defense again in a way that none of them could have possibly foreseen, battering at Charles' grip. Charles flinched back instinctively, trying to defend himself from the scorching attack without giving Shaw an inch with which to maneuver.
"Are you okay?" Moira asked, stumbling somewhere behind him.
Charles jerked, mind divided between keeping Shaw from moving, deflecting his mental attacks and paying attention to what Moira was saying. "Moira, be quiet, I can only control this man for so long," he ground out. Even that was almost too much, Shaw redoubling his effort to undermine Charles' grip and throw him out of his mind. Charles started shaking slightly, fighting back, sweat prickling at his temples as his breath came faster.
Shaw scrabbled for a hold on Charles, tendrils of thought twining around him, creeping insidiously inside Charles' own and trying to snatch away his control. Shaw threw images of his own past, of his plans, of anything that might possibly shake Charles' foundations; Charles couldn't afford to be distracted for a single moment, and Shaw would need only that instant that to allow himself to slip free of Charles' grasp.
Charles knew it was risky, but he needed to sink deeper, needed to try and take hold of Shaw's entire mind, if he could. He latched on to every part of Shaw he could find, stomach roiling as he learned more about the man's methods, his desires and his hopes than Charles could have ever wanted. He wished he could tear his mind from Shaw's but knew he couldn't afford to do so, not unless he wanted to give him free reign to attack Erik at will once more.
Shaw threw glimpses of what he'd done to Erik at Charles, turned them into daggers sharpened by the man's own pleasure at what he'd done to the innocent child, how he'd crafted Erik into an elegant weapon to be used against the human scourge. Charles cried out in his mind, high and pained and instinctual, trying to guard himself from it. It was one thing to see fragments of those times when Erik had permitted Charles to touch his mind. It was another thing entirely to live through them as though he were Shaw inflicting these things on Erik.
He was completely unprepared for the crashing, all-consuming guilt and desire and sorrow and fear and fury and pain and the thousand other tangled, strained emotions that slammed into him, all with the distinct acrid flavor of heated steel rolling against his mind.
Erik. It was Erik.
Charles' mind reached out instinctively to his friend, the fleeting impression of that infernal helmet in Erik's hands flashing into his mind as Erik murmured, "Sorry, Charles." His mental and physical voices were flat and low.
Charles gasped, frantic, fighting to free enough of himself from Shaw's clinging, desperately clawing mind to speak to Erik. His heart was in his throat, or maybe it was Shaw's heart, or maybe it was something else entirely. Charles didn't know, didn't care, could barely think beyond the panic that was rising. He could stop this, would stop this, had to stop this—Erik, please! Be the better man! You have—
"It's not that I don't trust you."
Charles didn't need to read minds to hear the unspoken, But—
The words cut sharper than anything, drove in past his ribs to his heart and left him bleeding and broken and utterly vanquished as he gasped out, desperate, There will be no turning back! There had to be some way that he could make Erik understand, make him see that he could never win like this. He could feel the connection between them dwindling as Erik raised that damned, infernal helmet and then—it was sliced neatly, never there at all, never more than a memory that seemed more wishful thinking than reality.
Now there was only a void, a space empty in a way that Charles couldn't begin to explain. It was a gaping maw, hungry in a way that couldn't be filled, and he reached out, grasping, trying to find that sense of Erik in his mind. Erik, with his carefully structured and compartmentalized mind, all blue steel lines and titanium reinforcement that were unable to hide the softer emotions, the brilliant bright sparks of memory and passion and unadulterated desire for more than just Shaw's destruction.
"No," he managed through gritted teeth, still fighting to keep Shaw's body quiescent. He slammed his hand against the bulk of the downed plane as though the physical pain would focus him, would allow him to find away to pull his friend back to him. "Don't do this, Erik!" he sounded more pained than he should, but the betrayal seared against his skin and left smoking wounds.
Shaw sensed Charles' weakness, and struck.
Distracted, Charles had to turn completely inwards, fending off the thoughts that Shaw set against his skin like explosions, so fierce he could practically smell the cordite. Shaw's murderous desire to quash the weapon that had turned against him so happily thundered in his veins until Charles couldn't tell where Shaw ended and he began. The intense pressure of his mind, scrambling to free itself, knowing that Erik would kill him—
And Erik would kill him, that much was plain. The words that Erik was speaking filtered through only vaguely into Charles' mind, entangled as he was with keeping Shaw from regaining control, but Charles didn't need to feel Erik's mind or see him to understand the terrible, crystalline clarity that now filled Erik's voice as he spoke about the death of the human race. Charles couldn't help seeing him with Shaw's eyes, through Shaw's eyes, mouth tight, face pale and wan, eyes shadowed by more than just the helmet. Charles' breath caught in something very much like a sob.
Shaw fought the telepath's grasp, now little more a wild thing merely struggling to survive, caught between the jaws of predators it should never have dared to challenge. Charles repulsed Shaw's efforts, holding him frozen and trapped and letting him gaze at his fate without mercy.
Fine, then, Shaw gasped, spiteful and loathing and victorious until the last, come with me.
Shaw's mind enveloped him.
His thoughts burrowed into Charles' own detached consciousness, driving through them like a spear, cracking Charles' already raw wounds open and pouring in salt. Feel it, Shaw hissed, and plastered the image of what he was seeing over every corner of his mind—Erik, armed with the very coin Shaw had once ordered him to move, eyes chips of blue ice as he stared at Shaw, loathing in every line of his body.
Charles recoiled from Erik directing such a look at him, but Shaw was already there, pulling him back in, refusing to go into the darkness alone. I will kill him, Shaw swore. If you leave, you will have murdered him. Charles didn't doubt Shaw for a second and his body started shaking while his mind began crushing Shaw's with a ferocity he'd never dreamed he could manage, trying to save Erik from Shaw, from Charles, from himself.
You will not touch him! Charles howled back, and he could feel Shaw's empty grin pressed against every inch of his skin.
I won't have to.
"This is what we're going to do," Erik said calmly.
"No," Charles protested, the words stuck coming out of his own flesh because Erik was in another world, and he could no longer reach him. "Please, Erik, no." His mind couldn't even recognize the sound of his own voice, choked with pain and anxiety, ensconced as he was in Shaw's mind. This would only end in sadness and tragedy for Erik, and how could he not see, brilliant and beautiful as he was, that if he killed Shaw, the man's last act would be to ensnare Erik complete and make him Shaw's own in every way that mattered.
"I'm going to count to three, and I'm going to move the coin."
Charles remained embroiled in Shaw's mind, keeping him locked inside his own skin even now. Shaw's murderous intent was there, was aching for release, but Charles knew he could bear it; in the mental playing field, he far out classed Shaw no matter what tricks the man had up his sleeve. If things got physical, however, Erik wouldn't stand a chance. Shaw's power would blow him apart before Erik realized there was something to defend against. He could do this—would do this, had to do this—for Erik.
"Please, Erik," he begged again, and he didn't know whether he spoke or thought the words. They were a fool's hope, either way, because Erik saw nothing but a coin already coated in the blood of thousands.
What was one more?
The coin entered his brain.
There was pain.
Charles could not give descriptions, could not make comparisons. There was nothing academic or reasonable or even sane about this, about the blue steel of Erik's gaze and Charles' shivering control over Shaw's mind, and Shaw himself twisting into the deepest, filthiest, most vile corners of his mind to avoid it all. The three of them were interlocked and intertwined and united in this pain. Charles could not move, could not breath, and could not even think, not with the pain of steel slicing with agonizing slowness through flesh and bone. It was all-consuming and frightening as all rationality was stolen from him, the words and fine threads of meaning that made him shattering and crashing down around him.
Then—absolution of a kind, as the coin passed into Shaw's brain. For a heartbeat, he could bear to be himself again, could bear to pull himself together, tattered and wounded and falling to pieces, could do more than just survive Erik's implacable and impenetrable will. He didn't for a moment think that Erik had stopped, though. After all, the brain had no pain receptors, as Charles well knew, and that bright edge of clarity, added to the craze of Erik's eyes which are even now boring into his—no, Shaw's—own, made his heart stop.
Then Shaw started dying.
He resisted. Tried to, at least.
Still, there really wasn't much that anyone could do when their brain was being very neatly and very precisely sliced apart.
Shaw clung to Charles, this time not with the intention of dragging him down into the depths of his own mind, but with the hope that Charles would lift him away, away from this unnamable and inescapable agony. Shaw was afraid, trying vainly to bring his power to bear, unable to understand why the ability that had safeguarded him from far more formidable threats than this, had defended him against guns and knives and nuclear explosions, had deserted him in his greatest hour of need. Charles screamed with him, or perhaps had already been screaming. He couldn't tell, and didn't care.
He still kept Shaw's power locked away from him.
Even knowing that, even knowing what Charles was doing to him, the need to not be alone as he died kept Shaw huddled against him, as though he were a small child afraid of the monster in the closet, and Charles could save him from the world. Charles wanted to cast Shaw aside, let him suffer as he should for the way he'd fostered hate in the world, for the way he'd taken Angel and Darwin from them, for the way he had dared to touch Erik, but Charles knew the only difference between him and Shaw was mercy and rules.
Charles didn't take away his pain or help him. He was only human.
He didn't leave, though.
Shaw died without ceremony.
Charles looked at Erik, reaching out into the void, the empty presence that felt like the dead to him and asked, Why did you killed me?
Charles snapped back into his own skin, collapsing to the ground and retching as his mind tried to acclimate what it had seen and felt. Nothing made sense; his thoughts still tangled up in Shaw's, Erik's blue eyes glimmering at him with uncaring hatred every time he shut his eyes. He couldn't tell where the tang of silver in his mouth had come from, but he retched again, trying to rid himself of it. Coughing, he tried to brace himself against the metal hull, which seemed to shiver alarmingly under his fingers.
In desperation, he took everything of Shaw's last minutes and shoved it into a back corner of his mind, sealing it over with layer after layer of clear, smooth diamond, forged titanium, and sheer unadulterated willpower. It felt like Shaw's power had left scorch marks on the inside of Charles' unprotected skull, and he had no idea what to do, what had happened. Charles had no way to deal with the searing agony, which not even the protection he'd raised would be able to stave off forever. He would pay for this later, pay tenfold for letting it wreak havoc in even that small corner of his mind, but he didn't have the time to spare to deal with the trauma properly. Not now.
Perhaps, whispered a dangerous voice in his mind, not ever.
Moira's hands were gentle on his back as she helped him up, and he tried to be equally gentle as he told her, "Not now. Please," and lifted her hands away from his skin. She blushed a little, raising her hands to show they were out of his way. He smiled thinly, trying for reassurance, and the look on her face told him that he had failed unequivocally, but she said nothing as he led her out to where the screeching of metal sounded like a death knell. Stumbling, feeling half-blind and disoriented from the headache that pounded at his temples, Charles left the eviscerated belly of the plane.
The sight of Shaw, suspended in the air as though crucified, blood trickling down his face, was not nearly as frightful as seeing Erik. Charles automatically cast his mind out, damaged though it was, straining and scrabbling to grab purchase on that featureless, soulless mar against his senses. Even knowing he wouldn't be able to touch Erik now didn't stop him from trying.
The mutants gathered slowly around Shaw's floating body, expressions containing varying levels of confusion, ambivalence, or simple wariness as they prepared to fight or flee as their natures dictated. Shaw had seemed invincible and unstoppable, but Erik cast a cool, almost dispassionate eye over the empty shell while he spoke, as though Shaw's remains were of less than no consequence. As though Erik hadn't spent nearly the entirety of his life attempting to hunt and kill the man who had helped destroy his people and his family, murdering Erik's mother before his eyes in cold blood. Charles' breath came hard and fast, mute in the face of Shaw's cooling corpse.
"Take of your blinders, brothers and sisters. The real enemy is out there!" Erik's voice was strident and unrelenting. He pointed for effect, gazing out at those ships with the sort of disgust normally reserved for the arachnid family. Something akin to a hysterical laugh bubbled up in Charles' through for a second before he quashed it. "I feel their guns moving in the water. Their metal, targeting us. Americans. Soviets. Humans." He spat the last word out. "United in their fear of the unknown. The Neanderthal is running scared, my fellow mutants!" There—that casual slur, 'Neanderthals' thrown out like he wasn't condemning an entire race to death.
A race to which, for better or worse, they still belonged to.
Charles cut across the sand with Erik, making their way to where the waves lapped gently on the beach, the greater swatch of nature undisturbed by the small creatures mucking about on its land and water. No matter how this day turned out, the sand and sea and sky would remain largely undisturbed. Charles abruptly felt very dwarfed, very insignificant, and totally and completely alone.
"Go ahead, Charles. Tell me I'm wrong." A furious challenge, something that even hours ago would have held a tone of light, friendly mockery, or at the very least cool neutrality. Charles stared out at those distant grey hulking masses. It was hard to tell—nearly impossible, really, in the harsh glare of the sun—which ship belonged to whom.
As Charles slowly raised his fingers to his temple and completely dropped his mental wards completely for the first time in years, he knew it didn't matter anyways.
Erik was right.
There was fear, a dark miasma blazing in the minds of those who had ordered the mutants' destruction, as much for what the men and women on the ships had seen those on the beach do as for what they imagined they could do. The fear ran as an undercurrent to their every thought, their every action, commanding them to destroy the things on the shore before they came to harm those who were out at sea defending their nations. That urge was particularly strong in the commanding officers, minds in a panicked uproar over that they'd seen the creatures capable of. It was an all-consuming fear that got under Charles' skin and made him shudder, trying to pull away from that sour, bitter tang that coated his tongue and shrieked in his ears. He stared out at them without seeing them, disappointment raging.
He'd always believed in the essential good of man. After all, it had been one of those fellow mutants that Erik was so hell-bent to protect that had been the source of Erik's nightmares for years; humans were no more inclined to evil than mutants were. No single human, mutant or not, could be held responsible for an entire conflict—after all, there had been those in Germany who had rejected the rule of Hitler and aided as many as they could, just as there had been traitors in the Allies' midst. Imperfect as people could be, they still had so much possibility in them.
Charles had genuinely thought that would be enough.
They had saved the world. They'd stopped nuclear war, stopped Shaw, and had brought, if not peace, then at least the return of the détente that had existed for the last decade between the US and the USSR. They'd saved an untold millions of lives, saved the human race to devolving into mere killing machines and stepping stones to the greater, mutant evolution.
And still they were loathed.
Fury rose in Charles, all the more powerful for its rarity and all the more eager to be released. The tens of kilometers between them and the ships posed no threat at all, not with powers of his magnitude. So many of their minds were weak in comparison to Shaw's or even Moira or Erik's, unprotected and unprepared and laid bare for him to steal their innermost secrets. He could do it if he wanted to, simply command their hearts to stop beating or their lungs to stop taking in air. He could kill them all, if he wanted to.
If he wanted to.
If he wanted to, he could do all manner of things in the point between rage and serenity. He'd tried never to lie to himself, at any rate, about the depths of his power and the way he could use it if he chose to, and he knew it was within the potential of his telepathy to crush these men who threatened his family, the ones he'd come to love so dearly. All men had rules they would and would not break, and Charles' heart hammered when he found himself staring at one of his own, the proverbial line in the sand drawn all too clearly.
Charles hovered above those acrid minds for a breath's time, gauging their fear and their intentions and—and the light blindsided him.
Curiosity. Wonder. Hope. There was one soul, at least, who, while wary of what Charles' enemies and allies had been capable of doing, was also in absolute awe and shock over what he'd seen. Even now, Seth Coyle was staring out onto that beach, thankfulness over what had just been averted by these strange new people sinking deep into his bones. The gentle happiness washed over Charles, and now that he was looking for it, he saw it in several other minds. Only a few, true, but those few were not entirely willing to murder based on what the people on the shore might one day do. They only knew that, somehow, those standing on the shore had saved them all with their unique talents. Charles almost smiled, but couldn't quite, not when he knew absolutely that they would still do their duty by their country in this uncertain situation. However, it wasn't their instinct or their desire any more than it was Charles' to cause them harm without due cause, and with the fear still cloying his senses, it was an unexpected cool breeze that swept the worst of the fear's stench away.
He reached out again, reached out further, this time touching on every mind available to him and his eyes widened briefly. For every one person who had seen the mutant's capabilities, ten more had heard only vague stories of what was going on above decks, occupied as they were in their own tasks. They were simply doing as they were instructed, trusting, as all military men and women must in a battle situation, that their superiors knew what they were doing.
Four thousand, one hundred and twenty nine people. There was Gareth McKellen, thirty two years old, an engineer who had spent the last ten hours buried in the bowels of the ship he worked on, tinkering with one of the support beams' welding to make sure it was going to hold under the ensuing battle. He knew nothing of what was going on above, only that he'd been kept on shift for an extra two hours already, and he wanted to finish his letter to his daughter. There was Gabe Newman, nineteen, always so bright for his age and anxious even as he continued to work on the ship's navigation back to the docking point in Florida. He hadn't wanted to join the navy, precisely, except they'd agreed to pay for part of his college and there was no way he'd have been able to go on his own.
Jared Salinger beat his wife. Kyle Matthews had a twin brother. Derek Buckner had cheated on his final exam to graduate from the naval academy. Elizabeth Foreman hated blood despite being a nurse. Geoffrey Huber loved peaches. Noel Whitley was debating growing a beard. Anne Valencia had a female lover in New York. Craig Hewitt didn't want to see his in-laws.
On and on the flood of information came, as Charles darted amongst the minds of the people on the ships. It was a deluge of feelings and desires and needs and thoughts and Charles sank himself into a thousand lives and more, living out a tiny piece of them as though they were his own. They left imprints on his minds, ghostly might-have-beens of memory that clung to him and compounded the throbbing headache that battered at his temples. He neither stopped nor slowed, touching as many minds as he thought he could handle and then pushing for more, seeing the hopes and fears and needs and angers of countless men and women, most of whom were uninformed by necessity.
Charles found the line in the sand and could not cross it.
Erik was right—fear ruled the minds of most of those on the ships who had seen what the mutants were capable of. He was right, too, in that every available weapon on each ship was now pointed in their direction, ready to fire at a moment's notice. Even those few in whom Charles had seen the curiosity, the wonder, the thankfulness, were unwilling to disobey a direct order without knowing more, and Charles couldn't entirely find it in him to fault them for it. He'd seen battle now, seen how one needed to trust that those leading knew what they were doing, as Moira, Alex, Sean, Hank and Raven had trusted him and Erik.
However, Charles could not sanction, could never sanction what he knew Erik must be thinking—that they all deserved death. Not when he knew that most of the men and women barely knew what was happening on deck, embroiled as they were in the everyday tasks that allowed the ship to function. Not when there were those beacons of interest and awe shining so brightly that could be fostered into something more than this blind prejudice and hatred if they were given the chance. Not when so many weren't even aware that such mutations existed.
So long as there was a single innocent on those ships, Charles would not permit them to be annihilated.
It was agonizing, to have to steel himself against the outpouring of fear and hatred. He'd really and truly hoped that their actions this day would cement their role as helpful and powerful allies to the government and prove to them that they wanted the same thing—safety and equality for the people who looked to them for help. Yet the orders the captains of the ships had been given were frigid: To destroy all living creatures on the beach. Creatures, as though they were something less than human. A part of him wanted to give into his rage and disappointment, to let it consume him as it so clearly had Erik—but that way led madness for someone of his skills. Instead, he focused on those small points of light, all the brighter for the darkness surrounding them, and steeled himself.
He let his hand drop, swallowing reflexively. No matter how the men and women aboard ship felt, they would not countermand direct orders, and that would kill the mutants as effectively as if every single one of them believed in what they were doing. He clung, desperately, to the hope that they could stop this; he nodded to Moira, throwing out empty prayers to any deity that might be listening that they'd see reason, that they'd hear Moira and remember, if nothing else, that one of their own was involved.
As she ran into the downed plane, Charles' own terror, hope, fury, pain, desire and weariness swamped him, knotting in his chest along with other, more complex things he couldn't name. He stretched out gentle fingers, riding along the edges of Moira's mind as she pleaded for someone to answer her.
Charles couldn't conceive which was worse—that they'd been sent on this mission and no one was listening, or that they were refusing to answer. Charles had to physically look away even though he couldn't actually see her, the ragged edges of her voice, the betrayal, the bone-deep confusion and hurt of Moira's voice ripping at him. He yanked his mind away before he could sense any more. The dead space where Erik should have been had already left his nerves exposed and bleeding, and he could ill afford more agony.
Instead, he stared out at the blue water, and the steel of the ships, and the glitter of sun on sea without really seeing it. It was warm today, on the cusp of being too much so in their suits, but the fresh breeze from the ocean cooled the sweat from his skin. Another time, another place, and he might have enjoyed coming to a beach like this, all soft sand and clear water. It was quiet here. Well. It had been quiet here, once.
Charles didn't actually hear it when they gave the command to fire. They were too far distant for that. Nevertheless, it resonated in his bones, hundreds of minds snapping into motion.
Charles stood there and watched, empty, as death came for him.
For all of them.
Erik's hand snapped out.
Charles couldn't breathe.
Erik turned the missiles.
Charles' heart started breaking.
"Erik, you said it yourself, we're the better men. This is the time to prove it." He'd never been forced to plead for mercy before, not like Erik had, when Shaw's hands were too close and the pain too great and the metal he was supposed to control being used to tear him to shreds. Charles pleaded now, though, and found that he pleaded not for the men and women out there who could be so much more, though he wanted to save them. He wasn't doing this for them.
He pled for the monster Erik was becoming.
"There are thousands of men on those ships—good, honest, innocent men!" If he'd been able to, he'd have shown Erik what Charles knew, of the ordinary fears and worries and dreams they had, of how at least some of them really didn't understand what choice they were making, how battle was not the time to decide one didn't trust one's commanders, how they wanted to do something great by helping defend their country, how given the chance Erik and Charles could foster the fragile joy in some of those minds, all of it. He did not wish to excuse the fear or the decision that the commanders had made, for even now it sickened him to his core, the blind hatred that came with the realization that those on the beach had more power than most could even conceive. Nothing could excuse that, could make that disgusted terror rational or acceptable. They'd made their choice and Charles couldn't find it in him to stop Erik for their sake.
He would stop it, however, for those who had not yet given into fear and for the chance that Erik might one day come to understand them. "They're just following orders."
"I've been at the mercy of men 'just following orders'." Erik looked at him, frost in his eyes and his voice. He gazed at Charles like he was a stranger and for one stricken moment, Charles was sure that he was. "Never again."
Charles thought, very sorrowfully, and very wearily, Oh, Erik.
Defeat and guilt settled on him and swamped his senses, nauseating. Charles was the fool Erik had so often told him he was—so arrogant, so blind, so full of his own intelligence and cleverness that he'd doomed Erik in his folly. He'd chosen the worst possible words to say to a man who had watched as his people were massacred as part of a job before the purveyors of that death went home to their families and spoke with smiles on their faces. Erik would be forced to pay the price of Charles' conceit for the remainder of his life. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the ghostly remnants of Shaw's thoughts which had become entangled with his laughed at him even as the imprint of the man's essence continued to fade. Charles' heart felt empty and he wished desperately that he could take the words back, that he could fix this all.
He could not allow Erik to compound Charles' own error, however, could not allow Erik to pay the price and start a war. "Erik, release them!" he roared, as though the words alone would make him see reason. Erik never even glanced away from his targets, mouth set in a thin, hard line. Erik couldn't, wouldn't hear Charles, couldn't afford to, not now.
Charles knew what he had to do, even as the thought of it made his stomach roil in protest. Screaming, "No!" as he darted across the sand, he slammed into Erik's waist with his full weight and dragged Erik down to the sand, shattering Erik's hard won control. Missiles exploded in the background as Erik lost their grip on them, but Charles had only one goal: to wrest the infernal device protecting Erik's mind from him, to stop Erik until Charles could apologize, until Erik understood the ramifications of what he was doing. Erik had the potential for so much kindness, and goodness, and gentleness, if only he'd let himself be more than what Shaw had crafted him to be.
They fought, hard, refusing to pull blows even when they drew blood. He couldn't remember if he said anything, though he did recall Erik saying something about not wanting to hurt him. He wanted to say it was a moot point, that between Shaw's death clinging to him like a second skin and the emptiness that bespoke dead bodies where Erik was supposed to be, he wanted nothing more than to weep.
Despite his surprise attack, however, Charles was woefully unprepared, Erik's greater strength, speed, and leverage overwhelming Charles faster than he'd hoped. After all, he only needed a single, brief opening, but Erik had long since learned the art of using desperation to his advantage. He scrabbled for Erik's metal protection against him, scrambled to grab hold of Erik's limbs and keep him from directing the missiles, an affectation that Erik still needed to aid his concentration most of the time. The image of Erik practicing calling metal to him without any accompanying gestures blindsided him, making the world around him go hot and blurry. "Erik, stop!" Charles protested.
Not a breath later, Erik's punch hit home. Dazed, wounded, brain struggling with the fear pouring in from the sea the closer the missiles got, the anger and confusion of Hank, Alex, Sean and Raven and the agony of Shaw's death, Charles found himself staring up at that blue, blue sky as Erik stood up. He tried to order his trembling limbs to move, but they point-blank refused. His throat closed and he struggled to breathe, wishing this was a nightmare he could just wake up from.
Then a gunshot came. And another, and a third.
Moira, and Hank and Alex and Sean and Raven, they were all depending on him. A wondrous as their gifts were, he could not force them to choose sides, to attack Erik openly any more than he was willing to force Erik's hand by getting them involved—assuming they chose to stay with Charles at all. After all, he hadn't managed to keep Angel. Either way, with Erik consumed by rage and revenge, it fell to Charles to protect them as best he could, to protect them all and bring them back home safe and sound, scarred perhaps by the war that had started on this shore, but not irreparably damaged. He would survive this, they would all survive this, and they would create a home for themselves, and for others—the sudden dream of it, unfolding properly, had him catching his breath. A place where mutants and humans alike could be as they were and build a life for themselves and their families. It was beautiful, almost too beautiful, and Charles clutched it to himself, tucking it away in a safe corner of his mind.
Now was not the time for dreams, however, and Charles fought to regain his feet, the sharp sound of gunfire barking in his ears. Moira was distracting Erik, at least, since he was too good to let a bullet come near enough to do harm, but until Moira ran out of ammunition, he didn't have the focus to keep the missiles on target and deal with her. She was buying them the time he—
His back exploded into pain, body arching.
His legs gave out beneath him without warning.
His eyes stung from more than just the sand.
His limbs refused to respond.
His mind, taxed far beyond its limits, gave in to the rising darkness.
For a brief, blessed moment, Charles knew no more.