The carriage ride is long and dusty and dull. Charles spends the first half of it trying to sleep, and failing miserably as the carriage is jostled along the country road. It's impossible to sleep as the wheels creak and jolt with every single turn.
He spends the second half dwelling on the fact that the entire summer is going to be wretched. Charles doesn't understand why he has to spend it at his father's country estate when all his friends are in London for the summer. It's unfair. He's bitter about the whole thing.
Still when Lord Xavier commands, his son must grit his teeth and obey. So Charles does.
It's been more than a year since he's stayed at the country house. It's a sprawling, comfortable estate where Charles spent many pleasant summers in his youth with his cousin Raven, playing on the grounds, swimming in the river, climbing in the orchard until they got banned for stealing apples. There are many such pleasant memories, but Charles is in no mood to revisit them. He's not a child any longer. He's at university now. He had plans to study throughout the summer, and being wrenched away from the libraries in London is rather like hell.
Still, for some reason, a strange contentment passes over him as the carriage rounds the last curve through the trees and there, at last, stands Xavier Hall shrouded in the early evening light. Whatever else it is, it's also home.
* * *
The carriage stops at long last, having drawn around to the side courtyard which isn't half as ostentatious as the front door. Charles breathes a sigh of relief and climbs out eagerly. He stretches, grateful to finally be standing once more.
“Master Charles.” The butler welcomes him warmly. “Dinner's waiting for you, sir.”
“Ah, thank you.” Charles smiles awkwardly, but the butler's already turned his attention elsewhere.
“You, bring the young master's luggage up to his room.”
Charles assumes he's talking to the carriage driver, but the man doesn't make a move get down from his seat. He glances over his shoulder and blinks. There's a young man filling buckets at the pump. He's tall and lean, lifting the full buckets easily enough. The man's clad in trousers and a smudged linen shirt, his suspenders loosely hanging down over his thighs. His shirtsleeves are rolled to his elbows as he pumps the water into the next bucket.
“Erik.” The butler says harshly. “Did you hear me, boy?”
At last the young man straightens up and turns to look at the butler. “Horses won't water themselves, now will they?” His tone is low and insolent, like he couldn't be bothered to speak up.
“The horses can wait,” the butler says testily. “Hurry up.”
Charles just watches as the man shrugs, sets the buckets down and makes his way over to the carriage. He reaches for a suitcase as Charles follows the butler into the house.
* * *
“Your old room has been prepared for you, sir.” The butler tells Charles as he leads the way up the stairs.
“Thank you,” Charles is still distracted by the display in the courtyard. He can't imagine his father putting up with that sort of behavior from a servant. “Please tell my father that I'll be right down.”
“Lord Xavier isn't here at the moment. He said to tell you he'd return in a few day's time.”
“Oh,” Charles feels defeated somehow. He isn't sure what he expected, but he at least expected his father to be here to...To what? Welcome him? The notion is ridiculous.
He sighs and nods. “I'd like a bath, please.”
“Right away, sir. I'll have the water sent up.” The butler goes out.
Charles discards his gloves. At least he can do away with some of society's niceties while he's here. He tugs at his collar, loosening it when there's a bump at the door. Charles barely gets it open before the stable hand is stepping inside, a suitcase in each hand.
“He told me to bring these up.” The man looks at him then. His eyes are startlingly attractive, and for a moment Charles is lost just looking at them.
“Oh.” Charles manages. “Put those right over there.” He gestures to the corner near the wardrobe. The stable hand carries them over and drops them on the floor without another look. “Careful,” Charles says, more sharply than he means to. His books are in there.
The stable hand's lips twist slightly, “Sorry, sir.” It's not a title of respect coming from him. “I'll just bring up the rest.” He leaves.
Charles has his jacket off and is working on his cufflinks by the time the man is back the second time. This time he lowers the bags to the ground slowly.
“Thank you.” Charles says distractedly, focused on his cufflinks. He can never manage to get them unfastened. It's a wonder he ever bothers with them at all. Usually Raven's here to help, but now... He bites his lip in frustration.
A hand touches his wrist as deft fingers work at the troublesome item. Charles is so shocked he can't breathe as the stable hand (damn, what was his name, Erik? Yes, Erik.) gets his first wrist free, and casually continues to the other. He does it calmly and efficiently. His fingers are slender and long, almost elegant... even if they are slightly dirty. The man himself smells of leather, smoke, sweat, summer air, and horses. It's a heady aroma, that for some completely inexplicable reason makes Charles's harden slightly in his trousers.
He's embarrassed beyond measure by this and pulls away from the man as though he's been burned. “Thank you, I can manage.”
“Course you can,” Erik smiles slightly, a flash of white teeth, “I'd wager you're not as useless as you look.”
Charles feels as though he's been slapped. “How dare you speak to me like that.”
The stable hand straightens. “Apologies, sir.”
“Get out.” Charles snaps, his temper rising.
The man leaves the room without another word.
* * *
The footman brings up the basin and fills it with water after that. Charles soaks for as long as the water stays reasonably warm. He still can't account for the man's touching him like that, so intimately. And as for his own reaction, well. Charles rubs his hands over his face tiredly.
He's been attracted to men before, but never quite so openly. Never so immediate. He scrubs at his face determinedly. It will not happen again.
Charles puts on his nightshirt, and robe, and goes downstairs. He partakes of some of the food the butler's had left out for him in the silent, empty dining room. The cold beef and potatoes is well-cooked, but Charles has little appetite. Time ticks by slowly as he eats. He wishes, not for the first time, that Raven were here.
Afterward, he ventures into his father's study and finds the man's brandy standing in its usual spot on the sideboard. At least some things never change. Charles pours a liberal amount into a glass before continuing on to the library. He peruses the shelves for a while, searching randomly for something to take his mind off the day's events. He has his textbooks of course, but tonight, Charles feels he's earned a treat. At last he selects a collection of short stories, nothing too taxing, and carries it off to his room with his brandy.
Charles settles down under his covers comfortably and reads. From time to time he takes a sip of brandy. After a while the fatigue of the journey finally overtakes him, and he sets the book aside. Downing the last sip of brandy, he finally turns dims the lamp and goes to sleep.