The Hamptons are a fairy tale land. Impenetrable castles gleaming in the moonlit mist, forlorn girls and boys staring out the windows from their tall, locked towers. Evil spells that try to make you forget the past.
Nolan remembers what it was like as a dirt poor 16-year-old, walking miles in his K-Mart suit and tie, trying to find a fairy godmother-type to invest in his inventions. He remembers looking up at the houses, the mansions, and almost getting dizzy from the steepness of the angle. He remembers learning that in fairy tale land, despite appearances, the reality was that almost everyone was a troll.
Now that he lives in a fairy tale (now that he doesn’t have to fight for every scrap, now that he has more money than he knows how to spend, now that he’s proven that he’s not nothing), he still sometimes imagines the Hamptons in these storybook terms. But, like all men who go back to read their childhood favorites, he finds that there was more to the tales than he realized.
He finds that these are not stories for children.
When Emily Thorne comes to town, Nolan likes the new name. It reminds him of a single drop of blood falling slowly off a spiky stem of a rose. He is disappointed to find that the name is that of a real girl (albeit a girl nothing like Amanda). He thought maybe Amanda had plucked the name of her vengeance from thin air.
Nolan watches the war between Emily and Victoria unfold, and it reminds him of all those childhood tales where the evil matriarch tries to destroy the heroine. Whenever the Hamptons' version of the young princess and the evil queen talk, their smiles cutting deep and ragged as razor wire, Nolan feels a tightening in his gut and it's equal parts exciting and terrifying. Watching the two women verbally spar is like watching supercomputers play chess. It’s a thing of wonder, and he’s in awe of their complexity, their innovative moves, the layers of possibility in every sentence. But at the same time, Nolan wonders about what will happen if an artificial being decides to stop playing chess and start taking over the world.
Of course, people like Victoria Grayson already run the world. That’s why she has time for all that chess.
(And Nolan wonders if he's becoming more like them, as he gets better and better at moving people like pieces.)
But the two women are truly from a fairy tale: long ago, Victoria had sent Amanda out in the wilderness to be destroyed so that no one could threaten her place. But now Amanda was changing the Snow White story into something different, something darker and more luscious.
Snow White became the woodcutter, the axe who cuts out hearts.
She came back to the castle with a dozen poison apples, leaving them in the paths of the evil queen’s friends and allies, tempting them with the gleaming flesh of something promisingly sweet.
She seduces the evil queen’s son, planting herself in the middle of that Oedipal maelstrom like it’s just another plaything. Nolan wonders what it is like for Emily, for Amanda, to feel the heat of her enemy’s son, the only source of warmth in her enemy’s heart, frolicking in her bed, kissing her mouth, her eyelashes, her thighs. He wonders if it is strange to feel her enemy's legacy move inside of her, to whisper his love in her ear. Nolan wonders if, during all this, all Amanda sees is the queen. He wonders if that makes it better for her, if that makes her eyes gleam with triumph or if it breaks her heart.
Nolan knows that there are only a few ways for this story to end. Maybe Victoria destroys Amanda, or maybe Amanda, in trying to cut into Victoria, will fall on her own sword. Maybe Amanda will choose the prince, the childhood friend, maybe Snow White will choose the magic kiss over the bloody blade.
But probably not. Probably, Amanda will win the day. And then there will be nothing.
The Hamptons will go on. There will be scandal about the Graysons’ fall, and everyone will talk. But nobody will think this is a sign that their ways must change.
And Amanda? Maybe she will find someone else to be, someone with something other than revenge in her heart.
Probably, she will be the new evil queen.
Nolan thinks about what he will be in all of this. He imagines he is most like the Magic Mirror. He tries to be the conscience, the advisor, the magical helper. But mostly, he is stuck watching the drama play out, trying to make his voice heard, hoping that Snow White doesn’t one day become so angry that she smashes him, broken glass in all directions, because he has said something she cannot afford to hear, because she can’t bear her own reflection in his visage.
The Frog Prince/The Ugly Duckling/Cinderella
Once upon a time, there was a boy called Nolan. Nobody liked Nolan. He was weird and funny-looking and awkward. He was smart, too, and that made people like him even less.
Nolan knew how to make wonderful machines, but he couldn’t make them without help. When he went to all the nobles of the land, asking them for the chance to give them his wonderful machines, they despised him. Not only for being weird and smart but also for not being rich, for not knowing which fork to use, for not being one of them. He could have a hundred thousand dollars and they would still look at him like he were a peasant, as if he were the cindered girl who shouldn’t be allowed to touch the lace.
When Nolan met Mr. Clarke, everything changed. The frog became a prince. The ugly duckling became a swan. And everyone pretended to like him, even if they didn’t do it well.
But it was more than the money. Everyone Nolan had ever met had tried – directly or indirectly – to suggest that Nolan’s talent was just a dream, that his brilliance was all in his head, that he should stop his quest and go home. David Clarke believed in him and he believed that someday Nolan would be a huge success. He taught him to turn his technological brilliance into business savvy. And he was a friend when Nolan needed one, and the fact that David believed he would someday make money off of Nolan’s genius made the friendship seem more real, not less. This was another thing Nolan learned from him: that money could buy friendship, if money makes people spend enough time with you that they learn to see in you what others don’t.
The fairy tale ended soon after. Nolan got rich, and David Clarke got destroyed. A good man, in real life, ends up lonely and lost. The villains take the win.
Nolan visited as often as he could, now that he was David Clarke’s only friend. He listened to what really happened, to the things David needed for himself and for his daughter. Nolan made his promises. He even promised to abide by David’s wishes and not hack into documents that could expose the truth; David feared reprisal, and especially feared for his daughter’s safety. He even thought that Nolan should do his best to blend in, to enjoy his life and not give up his status out of loyalty to a man whom everyone had tried to forget.
But as Nolan started receiving invitations, started being greeted with smiles and requests from the same people who once slammed their doors in his face, as Nolan finally gained acceptance in the world he was once so desperate to be a part of, the banquets and balls left a bitter taste in his mouth.
And so he acted the frog prince, through and through. He hopped around leaving a trail of vague insults and sneer-laden smiles, reminding them that he was not -- could never be -- one of them. Just as they wouldn’t really forget that he was a frog before he was a prince, that he was once the worthless girl in the corner, covered in stench and soot, Nolan wasn’t going to forget either.
Nolan enjoys seeing the real Emily. He enjoys being the only one who knows her real name. Even if it weren’t such a delight watching the humiliation of the Hamptonites, he would still like having this charm, this hold, over the woman who is perhaps more like him than anyone in the land.
Of course, she has this same power over him.
He wonders sometimes why it seems like she has power over him, why it feels like he is always doing her bidding. But then he remembers that she sees the man behind the ridiculous mogul profiles and the largely Nolan-invented rumors.
She knows his true identity; she sees when he is pretending not to know what he knows, and when he is pretending not to care when he does.
Even if he didn’t need to keep an eye on her, even if he didn’t need to remind her that she could choose another path, another story, even if he weren’t a bit (okay, entirely) terrified of her, he would still be stuck to her. She has his name in her pocket as much as he has hers.
Nolan sometimes considers how many people have died to keep the Grayson’s secrets.
He estimates that the number is higher than for many of the people in the Hamptons, for many of those attending at their royal court. But in a land where entire empires are built on the fragility of lies, the Graysons are surely not alone in having blood on their hands.
Nolan thinks back sometimes to the time when he realized that there really were places where kings and queens had enough treasure to make your dreams come true at a whim. Even when his teenage self decided that they were all bastards, he hadn’t quite realized that it went beyond selfishness and short-sightedness, that it was more than jealousy and fury and greed. It was that all these things, these horrible, human things, did not mix well with power. It was dangerous to have the money and power to act on these impulses in darkness, to be able to build walls so high that no one can see your crimes.
Nolan knows that Conrad might well kill him and Emily if he finds out what they are doing. Victoria, too. Frank would have if he had gotten the chance. Obviously.
But one day, Nolan goes to visit Emily and finds Daniel wandering around the house, exploring the drawers and cupboards, clearly looking for his girlfriend’s secrets. He interrupts Daniel, pretends to know nothing, and waits until Emily arrives. He trusts that Emily knows how to keep herself hidden.
A question crosses Nolan’s mind, however, and it bothers him. He wonders what would happen if Daniel found out everything. He wonders how far Amanda would go to stop him from ruining her revenge.
Nolan is almost certain that Amanda would never outright kill someone to keep a secret. But the fact that he has to think about it is a worry. The fact that he has to think about it also means that he has let David Clarke down, that he has betrayed his greatest promise to his only friend -- to make sure Amanda Clarke isn't destroyed by the same people that destroyed David.
Sometimes Nolan wonders if his own home, gaudy and brightly lit and bigger than he knows what to do with, will someday house a lethal secret. He thinks about where in his house he would put it if he had to store something vile and incriminating, if he had to hang on to a reminder of the worst thing he’s ever done. The safe in the closet floorboards, Nolan decides, or if it’s bigger (and Nolan doesn’t want to think about hiding something bigger), he could put it in the back of the wine cellar and seal it off with a wall of plaster. He wishes he didn’t have to think about what he would do if his home someday became Bluebeard’s castle.
He thinks that if it happens, it will be because of something Emily Thorne does. He doesn’t like to imagine that anything else could turn him into the monster that his neighbors already are.
Hansel and Gretel
Mostly, Nolan is disgusted by the people of the Hamptons. Sometimes, he almost - almost - feels sorry for them. They seem like such children sometimes, petty, stupid children, fighting over toys and attention, whispering their secrets, pretending that their own little make-believe world is the real world. They remind him of children alone in the woods, wanting to give up and cry, but instead wandering in the dark, hoping they won’t be eaten by witches or wolves.
But the truth is, they are not children. They do not yell for their mothers and fathers in the dark, no matter how much they may want to. They are adults, and so they cling to their golf stats and their perfect centerpieces and their embezzled pension funds and their lovers’ bodies, hanging on for dear life, getting lost in the fire, the ice, the wind, the waves, falling deep into whatever abyss would have them.
Nolan is not much different, he has to admit. He is still sixteen, wandering around with tired feet and a tie that even he knows is bad, begging for someone to believe in him, sneering at them when he sees they are too stupid to understand the very technologies that give them their stores of treasure. He is still afraid to say no to a good opportunity, and he still clings tight to any body lying next to him, even if he knows why they’re there. Sometimes, he thinks he is still a stupid, lost child. And then he looks around and sees Victoria, who would do anything to stop her sand castle from washing away. He sees Tyler, who kicks the sand in your eye to impress the big boys, and he sees Daniel, who still thinks mom and dad can fix everything. He sees Lydia, who thinks that no matter what she loses, she can still have all the toys, and Jack, who, despite everything, always thinks he can save the day, his certainty almost making Nolan want to believe it, too.
He sees Amanda, who holds a magnifying glass over the crimes of the Hamptonites so she can watch them burst into flames like ants on a fine summer day. Amanda, who is still living in that day when she became a lost little orphan girl, alone and crying in the woods, who will live in that day forever.
Amanda, who returned to ravish the land that expelled her. The princess, the sorceress, the dragon, and the child all in one.
Nolan isn’t sure where this story will end. But the tale doesn’t help him sleep at night.