The wall was safe. The wall was Hank’s solace.
The wall was also adorned with some of the most beautiful paintings he’d ever seen. As was the rest of the manor; large, crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, gold ornaments stood on shelves, a well trained band played in the corner of the room.
Hank could be considered a man with power and money, but Kamski’s residence displayed a wealth beyond imagining. Not only did he have an eye for decorating, he also knew how to host unbelievably extravagant parties. Hank was sure he was part of a very carefully selected list, there only seemed to be the most refined and respected guests gracing the ballroom.
He ran his hands down the front of his tailed coat, checking he was still looking presentable before leaning back against the wall, arms crossed over his broad chest.
Watching the other guests conversing and gossiping, he wondered why he even bothered showing up to these kinds of events. He was growing bored of it already. He didn’t care for rumours or meaningless chatter, he’d been the subject of it too many times.
“Evening, Anderson,” a voice spoke from beside him.
He didn’t need to look over to know who it was. He was probably the only guest Hank would consider somewhat his friend. “Fowler,” Hank greeted.
His neighbour of many years smiled at him, dressed in a smart green jacket and giving him a knowing look. “Are you having a good evening?” he asked.
Staring out over the increasingly more crowded room, Hank let out an unenthusiastic grunt.
“I know it's not your kind of thing, but you could at least try and speak to the people here,” Fowler said, shaking his head.
“You’re right, it’s not.”
Fowler sighed. “Well, my wife still wants to invite you over for dinner,” he said, perhaps already anticipating what Hank’s response would be. It eluded Hank why he bothered to keep asking.
“Thank you, but no,” Hank told him firmly.
“Alright. I’ll tell her, but she won’t give up-”
Fowler might have still been talking, but Hank had certainly stopped listening.
Unwillingly, his attention had been drawn elsewhere, as three new faces he didn’t recognize entered the ballroom. One face in particular had him speechless; he’d never seen a man quite like that before.
He knew he was staring, but he couldn’t stop.
Noticing Hank’s new focus, Fowler smiled. “Ah, the new neighbours.”
Hank saw a mature looking woman of around his age stood in a long, elegant, blue dress, a blue circular pendant hung around her neck delicately. Her pursed lips and harsh expression gave Hank the impression she wasn’t someone to underestimate. “Lady Amanda Stern,” Fowler informed him.
Either side of her were two younger men, late twenties if Hank were to guess, and both escorting her into the room. “And the twins.”
Hank watched them walk with such poise and dominating presence, he couldn’t help but be aware the whole room was watching them too. It was extremely rare for anyone to catch his interest in such a way.
“Niles Cybers, the tall one,” Fowler pointed out, and Hank glanced at the very severe looking man in black stood to the right. He was handsome, but seemed cold. And was ultimately uninteresting to Hank as...
His eyes fell back to the other twin. The one in the dark red coat that Hank couldn’t tear his gaze from. The man that made Hank’s pulse quicken.
“And Connor Cybers,” Fowler said at last.
Connor was breathtaking.
Hank had never seen a face so disarming. He was bright, handsome, freckles dotting his smooth skin and soft brown eyes that drew Hank in even from across the room.
In contrast to his twin, Connor was smiling, lighting up his surroundings with his dimpled grin. He greeted people as he passed, waving, nodding, and giving off warmth and happiness. Out of the three, he was by far the most welcoming. No longer a young man, Hank sighed and let himself shake the idea of speaking to Connor. There was nothing for him there. To him, Hank was probably just a miserable old man.
“I’m going to introduce myself, are you joining me?” Fowler asked, starting to walk away.
Hank tightened his arms across his chest. “No.”
Fowler rolled his eyes. “Suit yourself,” he said.
Left alone again, Hank willed himself to stop staring. It felt like every time he’d successfully ignored them, Connor would catch his eye again. He was like a magnet in the room, drawing people in, making them desire his attention.
Years ago, Hank had been the kind of man who did that. He could attract crowds of people towards him, entertain anyone, command a whole room. However, bittered by life's setbacks and the constant beat of change, he’d grown into someone bored of other people and their trivialities.
His mind drifted. It cycled over thoughts of his land, his bills, his orchard and the same things that called for his attention day by day. His work was the only thing that kept his life moving. There was a lot to be responsible for, and Hank was glad of having distractions.
There was a commotion on the dance floor, and he looked over curiously to spot Gavin Reed stood in the middle. He was squatting, moving strangely, seemingly attempting to… dance? Reed always did something stupid to warrant onlookers, but he'd never seen the man bow and try to impress someone in his life. It was, on all accounts, ridiculous.
He watched in amusement as Reed flounced around the new guest. The taller of the twins, Niles, who seemed mildly entertained at the display.
"Reed looks crazed," Hank muttered out loud, unable to help laughing at the spectacle.
"My brother often has that effect on people."
It almost gave him a heart attack to look over to his side and find he’d been joined by Connor, the last person he’d expected to speak to that evening. He also stood with his back against the wall watching the scene unfold. Apparently, he was a man with the ability to sneak up on people unnoticed, despite his eye catching beauty. Which, begrudgingly, Hank found even more striking up close.
Connor leaned closer, making the conversation more intimate, creating privacy from those around them. Hank felt his pulse spike at the proximity and felt very self conscious about the looks being thrown their way. “Good evening, I’m Connor Cybers,” he introduced. His smile was warm and genuine, catching Hank off guard more than his sudden appearance. It was like a pin that burst through Hank’s protective bubble, leaving him exposed.
“... Hank Anderson,” he replied, mildly shell-shocked.
He couldn’t quite figure out Connor’s motivation for speaking to him. He didn’t know why he would want to consort with Hank over the other more glamorous guests. He was no one special.
Connor kept such an easy going smile on his face, like walking into a room and having so many eyes on him didn’t matter. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Anderson. Would you like to dance?” he asked.
If Hank had been drinking, he would have spat it out.
There was definitely something not making sense here. The whole situation was suspicious and just plain unbelievable. Connor was asking him to dance? Was it some kind of a joke? He scanned the room, trying to find evidence people were laughing at him, ready to tell him he’d been made a fool of. Well, he wasn’t going to fall for it.
Hank didn’t dance. And he certainly didn’t dance with the most sought after guest of the evening.
“Thank you for the offer, Mr Cybers, but I’ll not be dancing this evening,” he stated coldly. He tried to be as polite as possible, but couldn’t help the rigidness that overtook his body as he turned away.
He couldn’t look at Connor, he didn’t want to see the inevitable disappointment that his joke at Hank’s expense didn’t work.
“Oh,” Connor said quietly. “Alright, have a good evening, sir.”
Hank stood with his back angled to Connor and waited for him to leave. After a few moments, he heard Connor sigh and make his departure.
The night had quickly lost its charm for Hank. It reminded him why he hated events such as these and why he rarely accepted invitations to them, or anywhere else. All he needed was his estate, his employees, and his piano. Music was the only thing that brought him semblance of happiness and all he wanted to do was return home and play.
For the sake of manners and not wanting to leave early enough for it to be considered rude, he made the decision to cross the floor to where the band was playing. Perhaps he could hide there and enclose himself in the sound of the instruments over the chatter of people. Then he could try and pretend he wasn’t there.
As he left his place at the wall and walked along the edge of the dance floor, he heard someone call his name.
They called him again and Hank cursed under his breath. Reed had spotted him, of all people.
“Anderson!” he yelled. Hank ignored him.
“I know you can hear me,” he said, catching up with him.
Hank walked fasted. “No I can’t,” he replied.
Reed grabbed his arm and Hank tore it away from him. “Don’t fucking touch me, Reed,” he warned.
Reed held up his hands in defense. “Relax, old man. I just wanted to see how our neighbourhood’s favourite recluse was doing,” he snorted.
“Find someone else to bother, I’m not in the mood,” he told him, scowling.
“Right, right. Not in the mood for dancing either, eh? I heard you had the balls to turn down the new guest’s kind offer.”
Reed smirked. “Connor. I was getting a drink with his brother and he comes over to us, upset the first person he asked to dance rejected him. You can imagine how much I laughed hearing it was you he’d asked.”
Hank clenched his fist. “Yes. Hilarious,” he snapped.
“I think so. I mean you, of all people? What was he thinking ?” he sneered. “I don’t know what someone like Connor would see in a sad, old man like you.”
Hank didn’t need to be told what he already knew. Especially not by someone like Gavin Reed. “Back off,” Hank told him, attempting to walk away again.
“Someone’s touchy. What? Don’t like hearing the truth? You sit in your manor house alone, giving everyone the creeps. I don’t know why Connor bothered speaking to you in the first place, you’re just a pathetic, old drunk.”
“You’re one to talk about pathetic, Reed," Hank shot back.
Reed narrowed his eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
"You’ve done nothing with your life. You’re a nobody. The only reason you’re here is because of your brother, and everyone knows it, so remember your goddamn place.”
Finished with the conversation, Hank stormed off.
Reed shouted after him, gaining the attention of a few people around them. “You don’t know shit, Anderson. I’m a nobody? Look at you! You’re a failure, a poor excuse for a man. Your wife left because you’re a cold, unloving brute, and you couldn’t even look after your kid properly-”
Silence fell around the room. Reed stopped, his words trailing off.
Hank was frozen in place, his heart leapt into his throat. A moment went by, tears stinging his eyes as people waited for his reaction.
He gave them none. Clenching his fists, he made his way to the door, keeping his head held high. He was adamant he wouldn’t let them see him cry.
Escaping into the restroom, he locked himself in and splashed water on his face. The first evening he decided to attend in a very long time, and this was what happened. That was just his luck. His own tired eyes looked back at him in his reflection, and he really felt his age as the fresh wound reopened in his chest. He rubbed a hand over his face, making up his mind to just leave as quickly as possible and avoid everyone.
As he left and headed for the main doors, someone rushed past him into the ballroom. Suddenly everyone was whispering and muttering, and he overheard one person saying Connor and Kamski’s brother were having a disagreement in the middle of the dance floor.
Against his better judgement, Hank slinked back into the room, swallowing the lump in his throat and keeping to the back to remind inconspicuous. He peered above guests heads to see if it was true, trying to spot where Connor was.
“I have the greatest respect for your brother and his party, but that does not excuse you from your behaviour tonight,” Connor reprimanded.
He had been nothing but polite and kind to every single person there, so Hank couldn’t imagine what angered him so much.
“You’ve got some nerve, you don’t even know me,” Reed retorted, jabbing his finger at Connor.
Connor sucked in a breath, clearly afforded at Reed’s childishness. Hank didn’t blame him.
“Well, I know this; I’m challenging you to a duel,” Connor announced.
The room collectively gasped.
There hadn’t been a duel in years, every altercation was dealt with on a smaller scale as time went on. However in the matter of a night, a newcomer had come and broken that. Hank had to say, he too was very surprised, Connor hadn’t seemed the type to challenge someone to a fight at all. Especially not in the middle of a respectable event.
Everyone waited on Reed’s response, although Hank knew the man would be too stubborn to say no.
He screwed up his face and balled his fists. “Fine. I accept,” he barked. The room exploded into frantic whispering, the quiet chatter making it hard to hear what they were saying.
“Tomorrow, dawn. My family's estate,” Connor said.
Reed squinted at him. “I’ll be there,” he hissed.
Connor nodded then spun on his heel, tailcoat whipping behind him, and left the room. Hank had no clue what led to them getting so angry at each other, but there was no question he’d be attending that duel.
During the excitement of the challenge, Hank slipped back out of the room and towards the exit. He left without saying goodbye to anyone. The night had gone from bad to worse, and he couldn’t see himself attending another one of Kamski’s parties ever again. His hatred for public events was truly solidified.
Returning home, he hung up his coat and removed his shoes, lighting a candle and moving carefully so as not to disturb his employees sleeping in the lower rooms. He ascended the stairs and shut himself in his room. He took off his shirt and changed into a pair of worn, long johns, then climbed into bed with a small sigh.
Finally settled in his own space, away from anyone else, and completely alone, he curled up on his side. Letting out a breath and giving in to his emotions, he wept quietly.
It had been years, but the pain of losing his son would never leave him. The sting of hearing it brought up and being called cold broke his heart.
He’d loved Cole with everything he had. When he died he took all of that with him, Hank had nothing. To keep moving had been torture, but he’d done it, running the orchard, keeping his employees paid and fed, keeping the animals tended to and looked after. He had responsibilities to others that pushed him on, but the love he had for his child would always be there.
Wiping his eyes, he took a few moments to calm himself. He eventually fell asleep, determined to show his face the next day stronger and unaffected.
Getting up before dawn, Hank stretched and washed his face.
He tied his hair back as he always did and went to his wardrobe, unsure why, but something in him wanting to impress Connor as he decided what to wear.
Perhaps he wanted to prove he was someone of standing, someone Connor shouldn’t laugh at or ask to dance as a cruel joke. He was already prepared to face Reed and prove he couldn’t get to him, no matter what he said. He hoped more than anything that Connor would give Reed what he deserved.
Hank had a thicker skin than anyone he knew, but it still hurt to be reminded he had become an outcast of the town. He knew people thought he was bitter and unapproachable, but having even new people think that was disheartening.
He sighed and scanned over his shirts and coats, hoping for something that would make him stand out. Pushed to the side was his old favourite grey jacket, matching with a lighter grey, striped waistcoat. Everything else he owned was darker, duller tones. He’d only ever worn dark in respect for Cole, but he was ready to do something different.
He was filled with the desire to stand proud and dressed in his smartest attire, honouring Cole in a different way. The events of yesterday were not going to beat him down.
Content with his choice and adding the final flair of popping up the waistcoat's collar, he descended down the stairs.
“I’ll be out for a few hours. Let everyone know they can lie in this morning,” he told his head of house.
He left his estate and walked along the country road. There were birds nesting in the trees above him, chirping to each other loudly, getting ready for the day. Rocks crunched beneath his shoes as he followed the path down. First light glowed beyond the horizon and Hank breathed in the fresh, dewy air, clearing his thoughts of his hurt and embarrassment.
Maybe Connor considered him unworthy, or an easy target to string along as entertainment, but Hank had dealt with insults, rumours, mocking, and abuse from much worse people. He once stood as one of the most revered men around, building his empire larger while also treating his workers with respect. He commanded rooms, brought excitement, even loved the crowds. There was still that man in him somewhere.
At the bottom of the long, stoned road stood the Stern family’s estate. It had previously been one of Kamski’s many, many manors, meaning Lady Stern must have been a very important person to now own it.
As Hank neared the back of the manor he could already hear chatter and the unsheathing of swords. He was just in time.
“Take 3 steps. You’ll turn around and then it begins. First to land a hit is the victor.”
Reed and Connor stood facing each other, both holding rapiers at their sides, an arm behind their backs. Niles stood between them, explaining the rules with a relatively passive expression on his face. It seemed as if whatever connection he had developed with Reed didn’t affect his feelings on the duel. Hank was glad to see it, as he had a feeling most people would be rooting for Connor anyway.
“I’m going to win this for you,” Reed said proudly, grinning at Niles.
“No you won’t, darling,” Niles told him.
“You’ll see,” Reed insisted. Hank snorted at the twin’s honesty.
There was a good turn out, quite a large audience had assembled to watch, and given the large amount of time it had been since the last duel it made a lot of sense. Hank moved in to get a good view, and a few people noticed his entrance. Connor included.
He looked over to Hank and smiled at him.
It was a mystery to Hank as to why he did, he looked like he was genuinely happy to see him, even though his presence shouldn’t matter to him at all. The attention might have been due to his outfit having the intended effect, he had to say he definitely stood out as one of the most well dressed there. He wasn't afraid to admit to himself it gave him a little confidence boost.
Something in Connor’s smile seemed more than just pleasantry, but Hank couldn’t figure out what it was before Niles was interrupting. “Ready?” he asked.
Reed and Connor both nodded curtly.
A hush fell over the crowd gathered around them. Tension filled the air, the sun rising and dawn spreading around then, bathing them in sunrise. Hank found himself far more invested than he’d expected, leaning closer as they all waited with bated breath for Niles’ count.
Connor and Reed both took a step forwards, the realization there was no turning back going unsaid, but it was felt.
Another step. A flock of birds flew by overhead.
There was a pause as the crowd anticipated the final count.
Connor and Reed whipped around to face each other, sizing the other up, no one taking the first strike. They circled each other, so focused there may as well have been no audience at all.
Reed took the first lunge, Connor blocked it, Reed swung for his right shoulder, Connor’s sword countered it with ease. Clenching his jaw Reed took a deep breath in and swung again for Connor’s abdomen. In a single slick movement Connor jumped back, clashed his sword with Reed’s and flicked his wrist, using the momentum to break Reed’s grasp and send his sword flying to the ground.
Hank knew Connor would be good, but he put an end to things very quickly and everyone watched, shocked. There was no telling what Connor’s move would be on Reed, now powerless.
“Looks like I don’t need to land a hit to win this,” Connor said, lowering his sword. With an air of triumph, he turned to walk away.
Reed stared after him, clearly insulted. He lunged for his discarded sword and snatched it from the ground, charging after Connor while his back was turned.
“Watch out,” Hank called out. He knew what Reed was like enough to warn him. Connor span around and managed to block the sly attack. He lunged for Reed in return, an attack at his shoulder which he blocked, one at his thigh that he also blocked, but while his sword was down Connor swiped at Reed’s face quickly. Everyone gasped.
Reed lifted his hand to the big cut across the bridge of his nose, blood spilling out. He looked just as surprised as everyone else as he cried out in pain and anger. The fact he had actually injured Reed was going to earn Connor a reputation, one that meant no one would think twice about crossing him. Reed would most likely end up with a scar from the cut, and Hank was somewhat glad the scumbag would have a reminder.
Pointing his sword to Reed once more, Connor fixed him with a stern gaze. “Mr Reed,” he said darkly, “You will not speak that way about Mr Anderson ever again. Do you understand?”
Wait. Hank was suddenly very confused. What was Connor doing bringing him into this?
Reed wiped at his bloody nose with the back of his white shirt. “Fine.”
Connor squinted at him, seemed satisfied, and dropped his sword.
Niles brought a rag over to Reed to place over his nose and helped him clean up his face. Hank broke through the crowd to reach Connor. He didn't care if it made anything awkward by talking to him, he needed answers.
Spotting him, Connor smiled, wiping his sword down with a cloth. “I’m sorry, I don’t usually get violent-”
“What was that?” Hank interrupted.
Connor blinked at him, surprised. “It was a duel.”
“No, what was all that stuff about me? That you said to Reed?”
Connor frowned. “Well I… I heard what he said about you at the party. He was disrespecting you and I couldn’t stand for it,” he confessed. Hank was speechless. Connor had literally fought him because Reed at said some stupid insults to him? The man was insane.
“Reed has a big mouth. He’s nothing to worry about, though,” Hank said, exasperated that Connor had gone to all the trouble.
“Ah.” Connor looked down, a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overstep or overreact. You just seemed unhappy when I asked you to dance, which hadn’t been my intention, and then I saw Reed speaking to you in that way. It made me angry. I only have the highest respect for you, Mr Anderson, I hope you know that,” he said truthfully.
Hank looked around, seeing all the people that turned up, seeing Reed with a fresh cut on his nose, and knowing it had been for him. He may have been wrong about Connor.
“You genuinely wanted to dance with me,” Hank said, mostly to himself.
“Of course,” Connor responded.
Hank finally looked back at Connor and sighed. He had been a fool.
-1 week later-
Hank swore to himself he would never attend another party. But there he was, in a huge room full of people at the Stern household, making his way across the crowded ballroom.
Connor was talking with Niles, laughing, eyes crinkling at the corners. The last time they’d seen each other was at the duel, where Hank had left rather abruptly after discovering Connor had been legitimately interested in him. He’d been surprised to see an invite especially written for him to this event, signed from Connor, waiting on his desk.
It seemed that despite Hank’s strange attitude and coldness, Connor still wanted to get to know him. Hank really had no choice but to accept the invitation, admittedly curious as to what it'd be like if he gave Connor a chance.
He noticed Hank approaching and looked delighted to see him, turning to give him his full attention. Niles watched them quietly, sipping his wine.
“Hello, Mr Anderson,” Connor greeted warmly.
“Mr Cybers,” Hank said.
"Please, call me Connor," he insisted.
Hank smiled and felt his skin heat up further. "Connor," he corrected.
He gathered all his courage, took a deep breath, and offered his arm.
As uncomfortable as he was, he made himself ask the question he’d been meaning to all evening. “Would you like to dance?”
Connor looked up at him. He had the brightest, most beautiful smile Hank had ever seen, and that alone made Hank believe it was worth it. His soft, brown eyes melted Hank completely.
He took Hank’s arm without question and leaned into him, pressing his shoulder against Hank's, smitten.
“I would love to," he accepted.