"What is it that you want, Nolan?" asks Jack Porter.
That, thinks Nolan, is a very good question.
The day he becomes the proud and sole owner of the largest mansion boasting every possible extravagance that the Hamptons can offer, Nolan finds himself in a crummy little bar by the docks, drinking alone and still debating whether it counts as going against a promise made to a dead man if he decides to destroy every single one of these people just on principle—or purely out of annoyance—rather than out of a personal quest for vengeance.
He hasn't quite come to a conclusion yet when the bartender seemingly decides to take a pity on him.
"You bought it out under the table."
Nolan looks up blearily. "What?"
"Your house," explains the bartender. "Or castle, as it were. It was a prime piece of estate that everyone wanted to get their hands on, but you outbid everyone by far, and then when the owners didn't want to sell it to an outsider, you took it over anyway—or so the rumor has everyone believe."
"Ah." Nolan's lips curl up at the hint of irony in the man's voice. "And that's what got everyone's nose out of joint?"
"Pretty much. Plus, you made your money instead of inheriting it. That alone should be pretty galling for most people around here." At the look on Nolan's face, the bartender stops wiping empty glasses with a dry cloth and gives him a small, wry smile. "Welcome to the Hamptons."
So, that's the answer as to why every Old Money Hamptonite is avoiding Nolan like he's a leper. It's a relatively simple problem that could easily be solved with a phone call or two and by throwing money to right people—not that he's in any way eager to be exposed to the shallowness of these supposed human beings who never fail to make him gag, but the whole point of this exercise was to see the Graysons and Co. in action, face to face, and he can't accomplish that if he's not invited to fancy shindigs.
And no, the frosty reception by the indigenous population isn't entirely unexpected, but what he hasn't expected is for anyone in this town to tip him off on it.
When Nolan asks for the seventh shot of whiskey, the bartender studies him for a moment before filling his glass and says, "You should think about finishing your drink and getting yourself home safely. I'll call you a cab."
Before Nolan could begin to protest this entire arrangement, the bartender cheerily informs him that he's cutting him off for the night, and since there is no use asking for another drink anyway, he might as well just go home and get some sleep instead, so that he'd have at least a marginal chance of avoiding hell of a hangover tomorrow morning.
Nolan watches, in a kind of mystified haze, as the bartender quietly goes about cleaning up the rest of the bar. It's nearing the closing hour, so the place's almost deserted save for Nolan and another man who seems a bit rough around the edges and intent on drinking himself to death. "Dad," the bartender says to the man, gently removing the glass that the older man has in a vice-like grip, "you had enough for the night. Let's get you to bed, okay?"
Nolan continues to watch as the bartender cajoles his dad, slowly and with enough patience to weather a rock, and takes him to the room in the back.
There's something about the guy that catches Nolan's eye, and not just because this type of simple kindness that doesn't seem to demand anything in return has already reached extinction in Nolan's world.
And not just because Nolan remembers this type of men a little too fondly.
Nolan stared at the long, empty table until his eyes hurt.
All of the so-called venture capitalists had got up and left the second his presentation ended, leaving behind the handouts that he had painstakingly prepared. His borrowed shirt, about a size or two too big, was like sandpaper on his skin, and its stiff collar was digging into his neck, so he rolled up his sleeves and clumsily unbuttoned some of the buttons and started picking up the drawings of his design, one by one, slowly and angrily.
Only when he had almost made a circle around the room did he notice that there was still a man left, standing at the doorway. Yet another one of bankers and investors and the likes of them, Nolan thought, eyeing the suit and the haircut and that generic and genial white-ness of the man. "The show's over," Nolan said and continued to shove the printouts back into the plastic bag that served as his briefcase.
The man didn't move. "It was an interesting presentation," he remarked, voice mild. "Unconventional, but intriguing nonetheless."
"Right," Nolan snapped and slapped down a piece of paper on the table. "If you're just gonna tell me how wrong I am and how impractical my designs are like the rest of those assholes, why don't just fuck off before I punch you in the face?"
There was a long, telling silence when the man calmly looked back at him. Nolan's face burned, so he let his head fall and went back to collecting the drafts of his design.
When Nolan tried to walk past him, the man spoke up again, "Your prototype is about 7% larger than the latest version in the market. Have you considered your options for cutting down the size? What do you think of using the synthetic fiber instead for the optics?"
Nolan's head, of its own volition, snapped up.
The man continued, rubbing at his chin and looking thoughtful, "If it works, it might cut down the production cost significantly. Maybe by coefficient of five? Six? That should also help reduce the projected costs for your start-up figures, is that about right?"
Nolan stared at him, not caring that his mouth was now hanging open. The man wasn't an engineer or a programmer, that was for sure—the suit alone was a dead giveaway—and he looked younger than the crusty middle-aged men who'd been sitting at the table. Still, he sounded marginally more intelligent than anyone else Nolan had to deal with today.
Nolan only realized that he'd said the last bit out loud because the man gave him an amused look and said, "There were many smart people in the room today, but my guess is that they were just not in the mood to be called 'short-sighted, sub-intelligent morons' by a kid who's not even out of high school yet."
So, okay, it wasn't entirely impossible that Nolan had been out of line, just a little bit. "But you're okay with it?" Nolan asked, dubiously.
"Well, maybe I'm just smart enough to know I'm a lot stupider than you," the man said. He had a knowing but kind smile, one that Nolan sometimes liked seeing on Mrs. Jackson's face. Mrs. Jackson, who had arranged for him to audit college-level classes and told him he may be the smartest—and the most difficult—student she'd ever had the (dis)pleasure of teaching, and who happened to be the only person that seemed to think Nolan could pull this off, if he worked hard to put his brains to good use.
And that parallel was further reinforced when the man added, "Oh, and just for the future reference, demonstrating how smart you are by telling people how you've been able to hack into their databanks with your both hands tied behind your back might not have been the best idea. That is, if you were actually looking for investors."
Nolan scoffed. "Oh, like you corporate mongrels are on some moral high ground on this and got any right to point fingers? As far as I'm concerned, you're all thieves and vultures."
The man didn't look offended. Actually, he looked even more amused, if it were at all possible. "Well, you can certainly argue your point if you want, but I would rather discuss your designs instead. In addition to the reduction of production cost, I was also thinking of streamlining the entire process."
"Okay, seriously, who are you?" The question was blurted out, rather than asked.
"David Clarke," the man said and slid him a piece of paper. "I work for Grayson Global."
Nolan read the business card and then looked up, blinking rapidly. "Um, okay," he said dumbly. "I'm Nolan Ross." Which was even more stupid, because obviously the man already knew his name.
But David Clarke only smiled again and offered his hand. "Nice to meet you, Nolan."
Nolan stared at the hand. After a moment, he shook it.
Victoria Grayson is beautiful in the way that plastic Barbie dolls can be.
He's already expected that much from the photos. In person, he's expected to catch at least one glimpse of what David must've seen in her all those years ago—something, anything that would explain how an otherwise relatively intelligent man could be reduced into a helpless and pathetic fool. He doesn't.
Conrad and Victoria Grayson own the biggest mansion out here in the Hamptons—well, used to, now that Nolan's in town. There's some satisfaction in that. A small one, but he'll take what he can get.
In one of the many perfectly empty living rooms in his mansion, Nolan walks up to a glass wall that overlooks the most of the Atlantic. When he claws at the glass with his fingernails, everything fades into background, and only his own reflection stares back at him.
This, he knows, might as well be the textbook definition of too little, too late. He doesn't have to check the calendar to know David Clarke died exactly eight years ago and absolutely nothing he could do with his not-so-inconsiderable money and power now is going to change that little fact. The decision to purchase the mansion was made on a whim.
Still. "I need furniture," Nolan says to his iPad.
His PA glares at him via the iPad screen. "And I need you to attend the next AGM."
"I make them more than enough money for them to wipe their asses with it. What more do they want?"
"Oh, I don't know. For their CEO to grace them with his alluring and captivating presence for once, maybe?"
Nolan doesn't roll his eyes, but only because it would take too much effort. "Get me furniture, today."
"Really? Does this mean that—"
"I'm staying here for the summer, yes."
The decision's made on a whim, but the lot has been cast, the dice loaded, so he might as well do this right.
He gives them exactly what they've been expecting: a flamboyant, tactless and classless former tech-whiz from the west coast. The whole get-up amuses him and makes it easy for him to study them, to observe how Conrad and Victoria Grayson—and indeed, the whole lot of them—treat him with icy, indifferent politeness once they judge him to be utterly useless.
People and their behaviors are frighteningly, disappointingly easy to predict, Nolan finds. People, not so unlike numbers, don't operate outside the boundaries of specific variables, such as self-interest and fear, the two—and usually the only—key variables in this particular equation for human algorithm, and the rest are all about the odds. Uncertainty principle doesn't apply here, and there's never a single genuine surprise, not even an occasional kick in the head that might prove to be fun once in a while. When you know how to work the numbers, like he does, everything, everyone, gets old pretty quickly.
But there are, of course, always exceptions to every rule.
"Hey, I know you," Nolan says, a foolishly wide grin plastered on his face, and makes a good show of staggering on his tangled legs. "I do—I totally do know your face. Jack the bartender, right?"
Jack Porter pauses and squints at Nolan. Nolan knows he's quite a sight, splayed over the railing by the dock and barely in control of his faculties. He's gotten excellent at this routine, so everyone falls for it, and Jack Porter is no exception. "...Nolan Ross?" Jack asks, his memory clicking.
"Yes, yes, so you do remember me. Of course you do." Nolan beams, drunken-stupidly. "Can you hang with me, man? Like, at all? 'Cause no one will play with me, because everyone here sucks."
Nolan's downright pouting, and Jack looks halfway between amused and exasperated. But unlike previous passers-by, he collects Nolan, like one would with a stray pup, and tries to get him home by calling for a cab and helping Nolan to his feet.
Nolan struggles to stay up, a demonstratively inep effort, and says, rather thoughtfully, "I don't like the ocean. I really, really don't like it." He stares out into the dark ocean like it's personally offending him. "The way it moves, man, and those waves. I don't like it. It's dangerous. It's not natural."
"And yet, you bought yourself a mansion at the Hamptons," Jack points out reasonably, wrapping an arm around Nolan's waist to prop him up upright, "surrounded by the ocean at all sides."
"I didn't say I didn't like looking at it. Hey, I bet you like the open sea just fine. Like to sail when an occasion calls for it, right? Maybe you even got yourself a nice boat."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do," Jack admits, grunting under Nolan's weight on his shoulder—which in turn is giving Nolan some interesting ideas, even though he knows now that Jack Porter is Off Limit with capital letters.
"So you're also Captain Jack, too, huh? That figures. Wait, I got a great idea! Why don't you take me sailing with you?" The question is only half an impulse, because the other half has been carefully calculated.
Hesitation is evident in the way Jack pauses. "I'm not sure if it's a good idea. You just said you don't like the ocean—"
"Hey, I can totally pay you," Nolan says indignantly, making sure his words slur just exactly the right way, and fumbles with his wallet. "Dude, I can so make it worth your time."
Because Nolan's been watching for reactions, he can tell the second that all hints of amusement disappear from Jack's face. "I'm sure you can," Jack says, slowly and carefully. He seems to recover some of his good humor purely out of practiced politeness when he shrugs apologetically. "Sorry, man, but my boat's for family and friends only."
"Nolan," Nolan says, pointing at himself helpfully. "I'm Nolan."
"Right, Nolan," Jack says, dismissively, like he's chalking up Nolan—rightfully so—as one of many assholes that are littering the streets of the Hamptons. Still, Jack signals the cab that's just turned the corner. "Take it easy, all right?" he tells Nolan and asks the cab driver to take him home.
"Hey, does this mean we're not friends yet?" Nolan calls out after him, draped over the door of the cab.
"Oh, you're a smart guy—I'm sure you can figure it out," says Jack, with half a smile in his voice. And he slides his hands into his pockets and turns on his heels.
Amusement curls Nolan's lips again.
The naivety of this kind is rather astounding, really. Nolan's seen their bank records so he knows the Porters are near financial ruins. Anyone in that situation and maybe with half a sense would try to buy Nolan's friendship with any means possible.
And yet, here is Jack Porter, walking away.
This really is unfortunate for both of them, because Nolan's always had a thing for the good guys.
"They just don't get it! How can they be so...so...stupid?"
"That's the frailty of a genius, Nolan," David said, gravely. "You can hardly expect others to catch up with you."
Nolan shot him a dark look. "Joke all you want, but at this rate, I won't have enough capital if none of the investors actually understand what they're investing in."
David quickly sobered and studied the spreadsheet displayed on the screen for a long moment. "What's the bottom line?" he asked finally.
"I have about half of what I need to build the first prototype, but that's about it."
David stared at the spreadsheet some more with a thoughtful look on his face before he said, "Tell you what—"
"No, no, and how about some more no. You already put up all you have into the collateral, and already this's more like your company than mine."
"And you put in all the ideas. This company is going to be yours, and yours only. I'm just helping you along."
To this day, Nolan was still not certain if David Clarke was just stupid—which he wasn't—or blind—which he evidently wasn't—or both, because how else could a business man be this naive? "This is totally a moot point anyway," Nolan said, raking his hair with his fingers in frustration. "Where are you gonna get more money? You aren't selling your house."
"Well, no," David said, sort of sheepishly, "but I can break my pension savings."
"Are you kidding?" Seriously, at times Nolan was tempted to bottle David Clarke into a jar full of formaldehyde. This kind of naivety and blind faith in people was surely going to go extinct extremely soon. "And you know none of this would matter if I could just—" Nolan said, waving at the keyboard meaningfully. "I mean, it wouldn't be stealing, would it? I will put it back eventually, and I could distribute the wealth more evenly, like Robin Hood or some shit."
David suddenly got quiet and tense. "We talked about this, Nolan."
Nolan wasn't in the mood to face the look of disappointment—not that he was ever in the mood for it, but David's brand of disappointment was even more special, because it was like hurting a puppy, what with an actual hurt look and everything. "Alright, okay, enough with that look, okay? I promise I won't hack into any bank account and mess with their not-at-all hard-earned money."
Not once doubting that Nolan would keep his words, David relaxed. "I will get you the money by next week."
"Are you sure about this? I mean," Nolan paused, hesitating, "this would leave you without any safety net whatsoever, and I—"
"Nolan, I told you before, and I will tell you again. I know you will make this work. You just have to trust yourself," David said, all sincerity, which made Nolan feel even worse. Nolan didn't have any doubt about himself—he just wasn't sure about anything else. Which, he supposed, was where David came in.
"It's too bad that we didn't know about Willis pulling out from the deal a little sooner," said David, contemplatively. "If I had known, I would've put off buying the summer house at the Hamptons. Well, can't have any regrets now. You want to see the pictures?"
"What, the place you bought?"
"Yes," David said eagerly, and before Nolan could give his assent or dissent, brought up on his computer screen the pictures of a beautiful, white-washed beach house. "What do you think? You think Amanda will like it?"
When Nolan was David's daughter's age, he'd always worn long-sleeved shirts and long pants, because underneath he had been regularly sporting bruises—unseen, but still felt. The little girl in the picture that David was always carrying had the happiest smile he'd ever seen.
Envy. Jealousy. There might've been a name for what he was feeling, but he couldn't tell how to name either emotion.
"Yeah, man, who wouldn't?" Nolan answered, and watched David's face lit with a beaming smile.
By the time that the first prototype had gone through the third trial stage and started manufacturing, David was already arrested and waiting for his own trial.
"It wasn't me, Nolan," said David from behind the glass. He was wearing a gaudy, orange jumpsuit that didn't suit him, and his face was hollow and desperate and so unlike David. Nolan wanted to slowly choke the last breath out of every single one in the world that made him look this way. "I didn't do the things they said I did."
"Of course you didn't," Nolan answered, automatic, and watched the relief in David's eyes.
What Nolan didn't tell him was: it wouldn't matter to me, at all, even if you had.
The Porters are the only people that stood by David Clarke before, during and after the trial, Nolan remembers. And because he never forgets anything, he also remembers one of the pictures from the carefully carved wooden box that David wanted him to guard with his very life.
A three-minute hack into the vessel registry tells him that Jack Porter has a boat named The Amanda.
Of course he does, thinks Nolan.
It takes just about the same for Nolan to find enough materials that would bring the Graysons to their ruins. The apple really never falls far from the tree, so that little story of Daniel Grayson and his little driving "accident" leaving his working-class girlfriend paralyzed could go places and Nolan can make sure it stays on top of the headlines as long as he needs. Or he can hack into their bank accounts and make all their investments crash in an instant. There's nothing easier. Nothing simpler.
Yet, somehow, all of those options seem too simple, too easy. Too...lacking.
And there's, as always, the matter of the promise.
Then, Emily Thorne comes to town.
And like her father before her, changes everything.
Amanda Clarke is her father's daughter, so she's obviously not lacking in the brains department, but she's also got the ruthlessness that David Clarke never once possessed in his life. As far as Nolan's concerned, she can be tabled as an evidence for both sides of the nature versus nurture argument.
It also makes for a good pastime, watching how far she'd push it, so from time to time, he sort of...pushes.
"Emily, Emily, Emily, like I said, I value my neck—and my fabulous life—pretty greatly," he says flippantly, and makes a show of studying his fingernails. "Don't know I can help you with this one, what with the cops breathing down so close."
She raises one perfectly groomed eyebrow. "So you won't help?"
"Well, what I can say, Ems? I've never made my selfishness a secret."
"No," she says, taking one threatening, dangerous step toward him, "no, you haven't. But you're going to help, because I'm asking you to."
He takes a corresponding step backward. "Wow, what do you think Jack would say if he saw you just now?" When you have pretty much everything you could ever want and need in your life (well, save for that just one thing, but that's what got this whole business started in the first place, wasn't it?), tempting fate comes pretty easily, so Nolan nudges Jack and pokes Amanda, just because he can. "Or dear Daniel, for that matter?"
She tilts her head, just so. "I thought you said you value your life."
Uh-oh, he thinks, eyeing the blade of steel that's somehow appeared in her hand pretty much out of nowhere. "...I did, yeah."
"Because I don't think you quite understand what it means to value your life, Nolan, not until you're on the brink of losing it. We can rectify that, if you'd like."
She can be knee-weakeningly frightening when she wants to be, which, he's gotta admit, makes her that much more entertaining. "Oh, I've got nothing but your well-being on my mind, Ems," he says, as placatingly as possible. "Believe it."
Her head tilts, just the slightest bit more. "I don't think you heard me."
Nolan backs out, hands in the air. "Alright, alright, Jesus. I will hack into the police database and get you the latest report, okay? Okay?"
Only then the dagger in her hand slips right back into her sleeve. She casually tugs down her jacket sleeve, managing to look perfect while she does it, without a single hair out of place.
"Don't play games with me, Nolan," she says, just before she turns around to leave. "You know you won't win."
Oh, he's got no doubt on his mind on that score. He can't win against Amanda Clarke.
He never could before, and that hasn't changed.
This was how his very last conversation with David Clarke went:
"Why not? Tell me that, least. Why the hell not?" Nolan shouted from the other side of the glass wall. "Why wouldn't you want to press for an appeal when we finally have enough evidence to go against them? Why the hell wouldn't you want revenge?"
They were safe to talk, at least for the next ten minutes, because Nolan had already hacked into the system and replaced the visitor's log, but David didn't budge. "Just leave it, Nolan," said David, who looked small and unkempt and seemed like half the man he used to be.
Nolan curled his hands into fists and tried to breathe. "Okay, if that's what you really want, then I will drop it, but tell me why. Don't you owe me that much?"
That, at least, worked, because David finally looked up. "Victoria—she, they're threatening Amanda, and I"—David dropped his face into his hands again—"I can't, not when Amanda's life is at risk."
"What, you don't think I can protect her?"
"I can't, Nolan. If there's any slight chance that she could get hurt—I can't. I just can't."
Nolan wasn't sure what was more damaging, that David didn't trust him enough to believe he would be able to protect his daughter, or that she mattered to David this much. He never hated David's daughter that he'd never once met as much as he did that moment. "So what, then? You're giving up the rest of your life, just like that?"
"There isn't much of it left," David said, after a long moment. "So it doesn't matter anymore."
It looked too long for Nolan to parse that statement. He watched David and numbly catalogued his features again: the hollow eyes, sunken cheekbones, frail shoulders, all of which Nolan had chalked up to the symptoms of a prison life. "How?" he asked, and his voice, horribly enough, already started to crack.
David stared at Nolan for the longest two minutes of his life. "The usual. Cancer."
Nolan felt shards of glass at his throat. "David."
David suddenly leaned forward until his face was almost pressed against the glass that separated them. "Promise me you'll get the box to her. Promise me you will get it to her, and that you won't do anything to jeopardize her life."
David was staring at him intensely with the dark, feverish look of a sick person. Nolan never could say no to David before, and he sure as hell couldn't say no now. "I promise, okay? I promise that she won't lack anything in the world." Except for a father, he didn't add.
"And no revenge," David added.
"No revenge," Nolan echoed, without thinking.
In retrospect, that was a mistake.
But then, now that Nolan made the promise, David looked almost at peace for the first time in years, and Nolan was bitten by sudden resentment. David was going to die, going to leave Nolan behind; he had no right to look so peaceful.
"Take care of yourself, Nolan," said David. "And live your life."
This time Nolan said nothing in reply, because he didn't have to, and because David didn't press for another promise.
That was a mistake, on David's part.
David Clarke died two weeks later.
The irony here is that Amanda Clarke as Emily Thorne is simply breathtaking.
When Nolan last saw David Clarke's little princess, she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Nolan or her father's legacy, simmering in anger like dark fury was consuming her.
And now she stands, tall and stunning and absolutely lethal in her cold rage, commanding attention with a flick of her glance, with her each step, whenever she needs it, and disappearing into the crowd like a fine slithering trail of mist whenever she wants to.
Watching Amanda take them down one by one, he realizes maybe this—this is what's been missing from the equation until now. Because she is magnificent to watch, and he, like everyone else, wouldn't mind being cut down by her, and it almost makes him sympathize with Daniel Grayson. Almost.
It occurs to Nolan, yet again, that it would've broken David's heart, seeing his little girl right now, and that a better man would try harder to deter her before it goes any further.
A better man would.
"Why Haiti?" Nolan asks, on their second trip out in the water.
Jack has a faint smile on his face, like the sea air has loosened him up a little. "A few friends of mine are already working with the Red Cross there, and I promised I'd join them."
"That sounds stupendously boring. Stick around for a little while, why don't you? Now that Em's in town and you caught her eye, who knows what would—"
"Yeah, about that," Jack says, tearing his eyes away from the ocean for once. "I really don't get you, man. She's with Daniel Grayson. She told me so herself in no uncertain terms, and she seems happy, which is all I want for her, so I'm moving on. So, what's your angle?"
"What angle?" Nolan asks, spreading his arms innocently. "All I want is for you two crazy kids to get together and live happily ever after." Which is, honestly, more or less the truth.
"And why is that? Why the interest at all? You gain nothing from being all chummy with me. If you want to put on a mask and run a charade, do it with someone who can afford to. I have a brother to look after, with my dad gone—" he stops, trailing off, like he always does when he remembers his father, who, by all accounts, wasn't exactly the father-of-the-year type.
Nolan hasn't quite decided whether he wants to guard or wreck the kind of innocence that would allow Jack Porter to miss the memories of his father with unblemished affection, so he says instead, "Um, hey, I'm sorry about your dad. Again."
"Sorry. I know I shouldn't be taking this out on you." Jack runs a hand down his face and laughs unhappily. "I know I got into this mess pretty much all by myself."
"Hey," says Nolan, and pats Jack awkwardly on the shoulder, "what are friends for?"
Friends. The word rolls out of his tongue surprisingly easily. Jack is his friend. The idea itself isn't alien. Nolan understands both its concept as well as its applications from practical perspective. Still, the sound of it is alien, even to his own ears.
Jack's still looking at him sidelong, somewhat warily—which is great, because it proves that Jack Porter isn't entirely stupid, unlike the rest of them. "Really, what kind of game are you running?"
"Uh, the one I take extremely seriously?"
Jack shakes his head, incredulous but still not entirely unamused, and moves on to show Nolan how to tell the difference between a boltrope and a bobstay.
Nolan takes one step back, grimacing. "I told you, I'm not interested—"
"—in learning how to navigate, yes, you told me. Well, Gilligan, you still need to learn this if you ever want to be out in the water with me. You're the genius, right? I'm sure you'll learn quickly. Catch," Jack says, throwing him one end of the rope.
Nolan lets himself catch the rope, and wonders whether it's the persistent pull of memories or this gruff warmth that has both him and Amanda gravitate toward Jack. But does it matter? This is only a form of indulgence for Nolan—an experiment, if you will—and decency is too rare a commodity to be even traded on the market anyway.
Still, a better man would leave the venerable Jack Porter to his own devices, and not drag him down to the fresh hell that Amanda—and Nolan—is devising.
Then again, Nolan owes David, in more ways than one.
And Nolan doesn't make the same mistake twice.
And because Amanda Clarke is still her father's daughter, she can't quite be as unfeeling as she would like.
Nolan watches how Jack's face lights up at her appearance every time, and how Emily—Amanda—has a smile on her face, not her patented and confident smile designed exactingly to capture people's eyes, but a tentative and small one that seems to surface from somewhere inside, no matter how hard she tries to suppress it. He watches her falter, just a little, as she witnesses Daniel Grayson fall in love, little by little, with her.
And sometimes, when her blue eyes start to soften, he sees David in them.
It happened once. Only once. And to Nolan's eternal disappointment, it didn't even go halfway.
One moment they were looking over the schematics of the company's very first plant together and a second later, Nolan was leaning over and pressing his lips against David's, hard and clumpsy.
In another long second, David's hands were pulling him away gently.
David didn't even get angry with him, nor did punch Nolan in the face. He sat there, looking a little bit lost and a lot sad, and not quite meeting Nolan's eyes. Which was infinitely worse.
"I'm almost old enough to be your father, Nolan," he said, eventually.
"Okay, so?" Nolan's anger came across too much like petulance than he would like. At least David didn't say Nolan was too young to know what he wanted, because that wasn't true. Nolan always knew exactly what he wanted. Usually the things he couldn't get, but he at least knew.
Because David was never exactly stupid, after a long moment he said, "And I'm in love with someone else."
"Okay, so?" This time the question was even more legitimate, because, if Nolan wanted, he could've pointed out that Victoria Grayson herself was married, and if she could, why couldn't David? But that would mean revealing that Nolan had been hacking whenever and wherever the mood struck behind David's back, and that really wouldn't go over very well with David.
"So," said David, patient and kind as he always was, "when you're in love, that person becomes your everything, your world, and there's no room for anyone else."
But that wasn't quite true, either, was it? Because David had plenty of room for Amanda. Nolan might've pointed that out if he wasn't, at one corner of his mind, wondering what it would be like to know that you were another person's everything.
Nolan let his head fall and kicked at the table with his foot. "Yeah, well, that's never gonna happen to me, so."
Then David was smiling his infuriating, knowing smile again. "There will be many others who would love you and care for you, just as who you are, and the ones you will love and care for, just the same way. That, Nolan, I can promise you."
Had it come from anyone else, it would've been utter, complete patronizing bullshit, but it wasn't, because Nolan could tell, foolishly enough, that David believed it himself.
It turned out that David Clarke wasn't wrong about many things.
Just all the important ones.
When Nolan actually sits down and thinks hard about it, it's all kinds of hilarious that all the men in his life are preoccupied with happiness of one Amanda Clarke.
"No," Nolan tells her, "this is crazy risky, even for you. What if they have a guard in place? Even if we create a distraction somehow, we don't have another person who can grab the USB stick for us."
"We do," says Amanda, after a long silence. "We have Jack."
For once, Nolan is taken completely off-guard. "Wait, you told him? Told him everything?"
"No, Nolan, I didn't, and we're not going to," she says, her voice completely inscrutable. Even if her expression weren't hidden in the dark, he probably wouldn't be able to read her.
"And how—" Then it comes to him. "Because he likes you, Emily Thorne, and he will do what you ask of him, no questions asked."
She's quiet, but only for a second. "Yes, because he likes Emily Thorne."
For the first time, Nolan thinks he might have miscalculated somewhere, because this is one level he's been sure she wouldn't stoop to. He collects himself just in time to give her one careless shrug. "I suppose that's true, because all he wants from you is for you to be happy," Nolan says mockingly, and this time, he catches her hide a small flinch, "he told me so himself."
But still, she doesn't falter. "I will ask him. You just get your virus ready to be sent in time."
David must be rolling over in his grave right about now, Nolan thinks. "By your command," he says, and takes a couple of steps down her porch. "Oh, I really must say, for a moment there, you reminded me exactly of Queen V herself. I'm truly, thoroughly impressed, Ems."
She meets his gaze, with a faraway look in her eyes, and smiles at him. "Yes, well, I suppose it was inevitable."
David, wonders Nolan. David, did you know what you've done? He's asked that question before, but the subject of that question has always been himself. Until now.
It's Nolan who looks away first.
It is madly, sadly hilarious that all the men in his life are preoccupied with happiness of one Amanda Clarke, who's always ready to trample all over it.
But when he sees her stand by herself in the dark porch of her childhood home and shiver in the chill, he realizes what's more hilarious, maybe, is that Nolan's never expected find himself to become one of them.
Sometimes, watching Victoria Grayson's flawless, porcelain face, and her frosty smile that seems oddly breakable at times, Nolan wonders how and why someone who had clearly loved David Clarke could betray him so thoroughly—wonders whether she betrayed him just to save herself and her family, or because she loved him so desperately that she wanted to leave an indelible mark on him.
If it was the latter, she was definitely successful. Nolan knows for a fact that there wasn't a single day among David's last eight years that David didn't spend without thinking about Victoria Grayson.
And maybe Nolan wants Victoria Grayson torn down into pieces because she was clearly successful where he wasn't. So maybe he shouldn't be pointing any fingers after all.
Then he remembers the last time he saw David.
("Take care of yourself, Nolan," said David, who looked small and exhausted and half the man he used to be. And Nolan, watching him from across the glass, helplessly curled his hands into fists.)
And he wants to take a nail gun to her smiling, brittle face, all over again.
It turns out both of them were wrong, because even if Amanda Clarke has every intention of turning into Victoria Grayson, Jack Porter is not about to become another David Clarke.
"What game do you think you're playing here?" asks Jack, sounding tired and beat.
He's leaning on the bar with the USB stick laid out in front of him, looking at both of them. Amanda, standing paled-faced and resolute behind Nolan, says nothing, so Nolan just shrugs.
"Tell me what this is," Jack says.
Nolan gives him a sharp smile. "Are you asking because you don't know, or because you don't want to know?"
Jack meets his eyes steadily, and then turns to Amanda. "I'm asking because I want to hear what you—one, either, both of you—have to tell me, because I've already seen what's inside. What is that you're trying to do? What is it that you want?"
Nolan can feel Amanda shift, just a little, behind him.
"You can ruin people's lives with this. People's lives. Do you understand that? Does either of you even grasp that concept?"
Of course they do, but it never mattered before, because all these people have it coming. Everyone, everything else, is just numbers, collateral, and utterly insignificant.
And yet, the palpable disappointment aimed at them now prickles at Nolan, and he feels a sudden envy for Jack's ability to feel that righteous disappointment, feels the renewed desire to see that entitlement of a decent person scarred and marred, irrevocably taken away, and cut down to pieces.
"I need it, Jack," says Amanda, her voice not quite Amanda nor Emily, though Nolan's never heard of her as Amanda Clarke, so he wouldn't really know. "Please," she says, and Jack closes his eyes.
Neither Nolan nor Amanda says another word.
Jack opens his eyes again and runs a hand down his face. "God knows it's stupid, but I still have feelings for you, Emily. And you, Nolan—I actually like you, amazingly enough. But I don't trust either of you." Jack turns his back to them and, seemingly with effort, makes himself pick up a rag on the counter and start wiping again. "Take it and leave. I don't want to see either of you again."
Nolan watches Amanda with morbid curiosity. All she has to do at this point is to tell him that she is Amanda Clarke, that her father had been set up all along, and all of this is to avenge his death. Jack might or might not try to dissuade her, it might or might not taint the all-so-precious memory of their childhood, but he would have no choice but to understand. He might even help.
But she doesn't. She stares at Jack's back, and then picks up the USB stick, and says, softly, "Thank you."
And to Nolan's utter admiration, she turns around and leaves, like that's the one thing she can do for him, that she wants for him.
For a long moment, Jack doesn't move.
Neither does Nolan, because he's not quite as self-sacrificing as David's daughter.
"I told you to leave," Jack says eventually, his shoulders sinking in frustration.
"Yes," Nolan agrees easily. "Yes, you did, and yet, here I am."
Nolan approaches the bar again and pours himself a shot of whiskey, downs it, and leaves a perfectly empty glass on the bar, upside down. Then he pours two more glasses, sliding one toward Jack and leaving one for himself.
Jack turns around and studies him with quiet eyes. "The real Nolan Ross, I presume."
"You presume right," Nolan answers cheerily. "Ask your question again."
Nolan thinks of David Clarke and Victoria Grayson, and little Amanda Clarke smiling in the photo, and brings the glass to his lips. Amanda Clarke has every intention to turn into Victoria Grayson, and Jack Porter is not about to become David Clarke.
Neither is Nolan, because Nolan can break Jack, just now. He can break both Jack and Amanda, break and make their world, become their world, with only few mere words.
And Nolan doesn't make the same mistake twice.
Jack Porter looks at Nolan Ross, perhaps for the first time. "What is it that you want, Nolan?"
That, thinks Nolan, is a very good question.
And he smiles.