Chapter 1: Montana
He's all but forgotten the blessed country quiet after years of Oxford minds pressing against him, town and gown with their petty squabbles and crushes and theories of linguistics. Middle-of-nowhere Montana is truly a paradise in more ways than one. Fresh pine washes over him, filtered through nobody's nostrils but his own. His ears alone relay the thwap-thwap-thwap of their laboring engine on these absurd roads, chipped a little too narrowly into the mountain for this great boat of a car the CIA has lent them. There's Erik, of course, grumbling quietly behind the wheel as he inches through the turns, but the man's mind is a bank vault, locked tight.
Well, maybe not so tight as all that – their stomachs growl in perfect stereo. Personally, he's far from hungry - it takes much less food to power Charles' smaller frame, resting idle in the passenger seat, than big Erik's leashed restlessness, the involuntary push of his mind against the motor, the door locks, the car's heaving frame.
Erik snorts, laughter laced with bite and a suspicious sidelong glance. Charles' apology will do nothing to create proper trust between them but… "Forgive me, my friend. I grew careless when I couldn't hear you for so long."
Erik's jaw hardens in a way that Charles refuses to take personally. "Can you hear me now?"
"Not in the slightest."
"Then why…" He gestures at Charles' belly.
He can feel a blush tinting his impossible coloring; he fears that, appearances to the contrary, he's more of an open book to Erik than the reverse. "I simply forgot to filter out the part of your mind that monitors the body's processes. It's so quiet here, you're so quiet," Charles taps his head to illustrate, forcing himself to hold on to his small grin even as Erik flinches, "that I just… slipped."
The hostile edge in Erik's eyes turns speculative. "You feel that? Everyone? Right down to…" a stutter in the thought before Erik squashes whatever it was ruthlessly, hard enough that Charles feels it like a slap in his own mind even though he's not peeking, "down to digestion?"
"I can't, usually. Well, not that I've noticed. It's just…" Hard to put words to it. Now that he looks inward, examines what his brain's been up to, he sees that on some subconscious level it's been scanning their surroundings constantly, a car radio searching for a signal that simply isn't there. "I haven't been anywhere this silent in a very long time."
Erik's smile grows unforced as he graces the dashboard with a proprietary pat. "I suspect I am much the same."
Charles' own smile still feels a little uncertain. "I am sorry. I will work to make sure that I'm not… unconsciously evesdropping."
"Even on this?" Erik's hand falls on his stomach.
"Especially that. I won't be hungry for ages."
Erik grins, wolfish and sharp. "Nonetheless, we're stopping for supper the moment we get down off this godforsaken mountain."
Charles groans and Erik hmmmmms at him, turning his attention back toward the admittedly treacherous road.
"I'm not saving you if you choke to death," Charles says, a little amused despite his stomach's complaints. Erik is wolfing down the monstrous fried creation they're calling a Pork Chop John with indecent relish, stuffing fries in his mouth alongside the sandwich.
The amusement at their expense rolls off the miners crammed alongside them in the cheery diner in unpleasant waves, increasing his nausea even though his fries are admittedly delicious. He's never been much of one for eating in the evenings at the best of times. Why bother with a proper supper when liquor is quicker without?
And these… these are far from the best of times. The sea of thoughts around them is turning brackish as the miners take in their accents, their clothes, their obviously government-issued car. "Erik," he murmurs, voice low but not low enough to make the other man lean in because that… Well, suspicion of that is in the mix as well. "We need to go. These people think we're communist spies."
Erik looks rebelliously at the remains of his sandwich, Charles' barely-touched fries. "We can take them with us in the car," Charles soothes, and for all his work to keep Erik's thoughts at bay the rush of shameangergratitude rolls over him by force.
"We're not making very good time," Erik grits, too loud. "Best get back on the road."
"All right," says Charles, agreeably, sending out a wave of calm that should be enough to prevent anyone from hindering their departure. There's no way of knowing that things are headed that direction, but, well, better safe than sorry. And Erik would make them very sorry indeed.
Erik crams the rest of his sandwich in his mouth with one hand as they cross the parking lot, pops the car door open with an excess of aggression. "Where's the mutant? The sooner we can leave this place, the better."
Charles lets his fingers roam to his temple, spreads his mind as wide as he can, which turns out to be quite unnecessary. "Oh dear." Erik cocks his head, questioning. "It seems… Well, it seems he was back there in the diner. He's a surveyor in the mines." Charles squints. "He can feel one type of ore from the next." Erik's eyes are wide, startled – of course, that's an awfully close cousin to his own power. "He can't manipulate it – identification only. He isn't quite aware of how he does it, and neither is anyone he works with. They think he's nothing more nor less than a brilliant surveyor."
"And he thinks we're communist spies."
Charles' hand slips down to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Yes."
Erik turns the ignition with too much force. "I think we're done here."
As much as he wishes for a more auspicious beginning to their recruiting drive, Charles is forced to agree.
It's late and dark, growing ever darker, and the roads are as treacherous and tree-lined as ever. Erik's fingers drum an unhappy but soporific pattern on the steering wheel.
The car turns suddenly, sharply, jostling Charles hard against the car door. He's well and truly awake now, more than awake enough to suspect it was only Erik's mental intervention that kept the door from popping open under his weight. "Erik, what…?"
He gestures toward one of the myriad little brown signs they've passed, something-or-other State Park. "I'm tired of driving," Erik says, blithely raising the metal arm placed next to a booth labeled with a large sign indicating "Day Use Only."
"Fair enough." The last mileage sign he was awake enough to remember had placed the little city that they're aiming for, Missoula, much farther away than it seems like it ought to be. "I can take a turn if you like."
Erik's eyes rake Charles, and he's suddenly hyper-aware of his own sleepy blinks and half-curled posture. "Not a chance." He pulls the car into a parking space and is out rummaging around in the trunk before Charles can get his feet underneath him to help. "I did make sure we came prepared." It's a good thing, too written plainly on his face as he pulls Charles' door open and presses a sleeping bag into his arms. "Come on, then."
This probably isn't a good idea, but he's too sleepy to marshal up any arguments right now and where's the harm in it, really? Hasn't he always meant to give camping a go? Here's his perfect chance. It smells like pine, and not the least bit like rain, and frankly he doesn't fancy an unnecessary argument with Erik after the day they've had.
Erik is tromping around with a frankly unnecessary vigor. It seems best to just wait by the car until whatever mysterious requirements the man has are satisfied. "Come on, then," Erik shouts, sleepy and impatient. So much for that plan. Charles pauses to liberate his bag from the back seat and scrambles to follow Erik's zigzag path through the dark trees. He's so intent on keeping up that he nearly skids into Erik, come to an abrupt halt in a clearing close to the little river, fenced in by trees but large enough that anything coming out of them will have some distance to cross before it reaches them. "This'll do," Erik grunts, dropping to his knees to roll out his sleeping bag.
"It's practically a palace," he says and Erik snorts at him as he retreats into the woods, just far enough to get out of sight and into his pajamas.
Erik laughs outright as he emerges. "Well, now it's a proper slumber party."
"You try sleeping in wool trousers," and if he's returning Erik's grin, well, better to end this endless day on a friendly note.
Erik raises an eyebrow at the bottle of scotch he rummages out of his bag. "If you're planning to play spin the bottle, I'm leaving you here."
"Oh, ha ha," and that doesn't sound half so irritated as he'd meant it to. He takes a long swallow from the bottle and hands it over to Erik, who takes a judicious sip before rolling the liquid around in his mouth and spitting it.
"That's good scotch you're wasting," he says mildly, and takes another pull when Erik hands it back.
"I wouldn't have taken you for such a drinker." Erik's tone is deceptively mild in turn.
At least the dark will hide his flush. "I did promise to take measures about my eavesdropping," and if he's not meeting Erik's eyes, it's certainly because he needs to focus on rolling out his sleeping bag. "Think of it as insurance against dreams."
"Mine or yours?" Interesting; Erik's tone is more curious than closed.
"Either. Both." Charles shrugs and goes about settling in to his bedroll, ignoring Erik's interrogative eyebrow. Who knows what his mind will latch on to in this near-perfect silence when he's not awake to reign it in.
"It's really so hard to stay in your own head?"
Ah. There's a little of the edge back in Erik's tone. "Sadly, I don't come equipped with an off switch," and if he falls a bit short of jovial, well, it's late.
Erik's staring at his hands now, and Charles doesn't need his advantages to know that the man's thinking, wrongly, that his own power only comes up when called. Remarkable, that he doesn't feel his body's constant dialogue with the metal around them, an ever-present itch in Charles' mind.
That's a trouble for another day. Charles closes his eyes, surrenders to the familiar, welcome muzziness of drink. If it was enough to keep his mind close in the crowded pubs of Oxford it would – should – keep him out of his new friend's thoughts absent deliberate effort to the contrary, even if he can feel them pressing around the edges of his consciousness.
It seems, however, that Erik's not quite through with him. "I think you and I were built for the city," he says, contemplative, staring at the stars. "I wonder if there are so many of us out here because they're like our friend the surveyor, tied to nature more than industry."
Charles has his own suspicions about what might draw mutants to a place where there are often miles between houses and it's not unusual to greet unannounced guests with the barrel of a shotgun. But that, too, is a battle for another day, and one he'd be glad to lose. "Perhaps," he allows, and slips into sleep.