If he weren't already exhausted, maybe Charles could have found another way.
Maybe he would have felt the humans before Hank set the Blackbird down on the school lawn, dead center in the waiting trap. Maybe he could have found another way to protect his own. Maybe it wouldn't have come down to an impossible ultimatum.
Maybe there's no point considering implausible alternatives as Charles finds himself staring down more guns than he can count at a glance. Hundreds more visible in the moonlight, ready and taking aim, not just at Charles, but at every one of his people.
Not just his people, Charles thinks with a frantic twist of fear. His friends, his charges, his responsibility.
He can't let them down this way, and his blood ices in his veins at the sneering voice that breaks the silence an instant later.
"Welcome home, Professor." Dark satisfaction glints in Agent Stryker's eyes.
Charles has never wanted to be a man capable of hate, but in this moment he knows the feeling with painful clarity. His legs tremble uneasily beneath him, taut with the urge to launch himself forward at the man smirking from behind the first row of guns. Charles wants to take him to pieces with bare hands and then start in with all the violence his mind can wreak.
But Charles holds his ground. He brushes the fury aside and stands exactly where he is, clenching his hands into fists against his thighs.
"How did you find us?" he asks. Stalling for time, futile though the effort may be. He could rip the information from the agent's mind easily enough, if he thought it would make any difference.
He can feel them all. A hundred, two hundred, maybe more. Human minds shrieking with fear and contempt, itchy trigger fingers and soldiers just waiting for the kill order. Ready to open fire the second Stryker gives the go-ahead.
It's a battalion surrounding Charles's mutants on all sides. And despite all the talents and abilities of his people, he knows they're trapped.
They'll put up a good fight. They'll go down protecting each other. A dozen or so might even survive.
But the fact that the humans have managed to corral them in the first place—bare moments after Charles stepped off the Blackbird with Hank and Logan in his wake—tells him the humans have them physically outmatched.
The night is stark around them as the mutants brace themselves. Charles can feel them in his mind, and in the very air around him. The wind picks up. Clouds build quickly above, lit inwardly by bright flashes of lightning. Charles's hair whips in his eyes, chaotic in the mounting wind, and his skin shivers with a hum of energy.
There's a low rumble of sound to his left; Hank growls as he steps closer, trying to put himself between Charles and the primary line of fire.
Don't, Charles wants to say, but doesn't bother. They're all in the line of fire. They're all equally dead once those guns open up, except those handful able to survive the raw force of bullets.
There are other noises now. The thrum of Alex on the verge of letting loose. The subtle shimmer of sounds as more than a dozen mutants shift into different shapes, different bodies, different forms. Stronger, faster, impenetrable.
It won't be enough.
There's a metallic snick of sound, closer to Charles's right than he expects, and his mind and then his eyes find Logan—watching Charles like he's waiting for orders.
Logan, whose heavy skepticism didn't stop him from signing on with Charles's improbable cause after the war started—who has protected this school more fiercely than Charles could have asked, even as the world crumbled around them—and who might just be the only one to walk out of this alive.
You know we can't beat them, Logan's voice rings clear in Charles's thoughts.
He's right. Nausea rolls through Charles's gut, makes his legs feel unsteady beneath him, and he knows Logan is right. He knows his people are going to die fighting, because there's nothing else they can do.
Frustration screams alongside the terror beneath Charles's skin, and his fingernails dig into his palms. Stryker hasn't answered his question, and Charles doesn't expect him to. He can feel all too clearly the vicious, grimy loathing in the human's mind, and his chest clenches tightly.
God, if there were only fewer of them. If Charles had just a little more strength left after a grueling mission—a successful mission, a rescue that's about to be moot—but he can't even summon the finesse to block out the swell of thoughts, let alone exercise the control he would need to put the humans to sleep without hurting them. Their minds are still screaming at him, gray and gruesome with hate, distinct from the bright warmth and familiarity of his mutants.
The chaos is overwhelming, and yet somehow Charles can feel his own people reaching for him through the cacophony. Hope. Trust. Young minds that don't know how to despair, because he taught them better than that. Because they believe in him, and something in Charles's chest snaps loose.
It hurts. Christ, it hurts, but it's a relief, too. An unexpected certainty that this isn't happening. Charles isn't letting it happen.
Professor? Hank's worry brushes his mind. He must sense that something has changed, attuned as he's become to Charles over the past five years.
But Charles doesn't respond. He's barely listening. His eyes close, and he draws into himself in a messy rush. He summons every fading ounce of his strength and control, and he blocks out Hank's thoughts, Logan's flash of concern, all of his people.
He focuses on the ragged edges of hate assailing him, human thoughts so transparent and grim. Charles finds those minds, reaches for them—reaches out and out until there are hundreds of human voices clamoring in his head.
He doesn't know what he's doing now. He can't think through the chaos, the surge of other people's emotions swirling through him. He's a grasping, shuddering creature of pure instinct, lost in the riot. Drowning.
And just before it becomes too much, before those hundreds of minds can crush him beneath the weight of their rage and fear and hatred, Charles pushes.
There's no finesse in what he does. No measure, no control, no caution. He simply takes those minds, all of them, and twists them in on themselves.
He's lost in a disconnected tumult, but he's also aware. He knows that's the spark of human life he feels extinguishing beneath the force of his mind. One by one. Thoughts and fears screaming and collapsing into nothingness.
"What the hell?" he hears someone yell—one of his, he thinks. Alex, maybe. And now he can hear more sounds—the rapid thump of hundreds of bodies, falling to the ground in unison.
Charles's pulse surges in his ears, and a tingle rushes from his fingertips, washes his body with numbness. He clings to consciousness, ragged and disjointed, but his legs give out beneath him. He's falling, and he doesn't remember how to catch himself.
Then there's another snick of metal, a quiet curse, and quick hands intercepting his fall. The ground is wet. It may be dew, but it may also be the rain that Charles hadn't realized was starting to fall. Someone is holding him cautiously, but Charles can't open his eyes. He can't pierce the exhaustion clouding his thoughts long enough to figure out who caught him.
There are more voices now. Shouting and chaos.
"Banshee, check the grounds for—"
Then Hank's voice a short distance away, soft but powerful and overriding the chaotic flurry of questions.
"They're… They're all dead."
"They can't all be—"
"Yes," Hank interrupts the denial. "They can."
Low murmurs—Hank and Alex, Charles thinks, though he can't quite make out the exchange, and then Alex's voice is barking orders. Coordinating a necessary retreat, checking to make sure everyone is accounted for.
"My god, Charles." Logan's voice rumbles low and close, which answers the question of who caught him. "What did you do?"
Charles wouldn't know how to answer even if he could move to react.
"Beast!" Logan calls sharply, jarringly loud after the quiet murmur of a moment before. "Get over here."
There's a rush of air, then enormous hands and soft fur, Beast's clinical touch checking Charles's vitals, then pressing to his forehead, looking for nonexistent injuries.
Charles doesn't need access to Logan's thoughts to sense the unspoken questions pouring off him—the uncertainty in the way his fingers tighten on Charles's arms, or the uneven rise and fall of his chest.
"Why won't he open his eyes?" Logan growls when Hank offers no immediate explanations.
"Let's move," Hank says instead of answering. "I think he's stable. We have to get out of here before reinforcements arrive." Because of course there are reinforcements on the way. Humans never send just one army.
"Hank," Logan says, graveled warning in his tone.
Hank sighs and says, "I don't know. All I know is we have to evacuate now or it's not going to matter. Get him to the jet, I won't be long."
"Where the hell are you going?" Logan demands, already gathering Charles effortlessly in his arms, standing like Charles weighs nothing. Charles wants to say something—or at least brush Logan's mind, offer the kind of wordless reassurance that usually comes so easily. But he's tired, and it's all he can do to fend off his exhaustion for a few seconds more.
"I can't leave my labs for them to ransack. Just wait for me. I only need five minutes."
"Hurry," Logan snarls. Then the shadows of exhaustion finally swell and engulf Charles, and he overhears nothing else.