The Gardner Theory
Disclaimer: I don't own a damn thing, obviously.
(Vague spoilers up to 2x02.)
"Figured it would come to this," Nolan panted, jerking his head out of the way of a punch landing close. He brought his arm up to block the blow from the other fist he knew Emily would follow up with.
They were drenched in sweat and their gis had flared open at the chest, neither hesitating to fix their clothing. It had been fifteen minutes and Emily's growing look of frustration was starting to wane, replaced by actual amusement, just as Nolan's smug look of accomplishment was starting to kick in. Sure, it was obvious that she was holding back a little, but the fact that he was able to hold up this long was a sign to both of them that he'd learned a thing or two in all of those classes.
This was fun, and any guilt she felt over enjoying their sparring match was easily explained away when she reminded herself she was testing him, to see how well he could hold on his own. So far, so good.
Since the slow start of the season, Emily had practically been pacing the beach house like a caged animal, flitting from task to task, completing them as precisely as possible, and moving on to the next thing. Except, for the time being, she'd have to wait, coiled to spring the second she could.
Tonight, he was relishing his role as her accomplice, suggesting (challenging) she took a few swings at him in the spare room, knowing exactly what she needed when even she didn't. Her painting supplies and the rest of the furniture were cleared out, the curtains were drawn, and they quickly changed into the proper clothing.
Fifteen minutes and he was doing admirably. With each averted kick or punch, Emily felt the smile on her face grow. She had needed this, as a way to blow off steam (not that she'd say that to him).
(Or maybe she would.)
Remembering to say 'thank you' made him more complacent, made him feel like she really needed him even when she didn't and he was just another tool in her arsenal (to say 'thank you' made him smile and sometimes she needed that, something other than negotiations and fear).
(Emily Thorne would never do that.)
(Amanda Clarke wouldn't either.)
So who the hell was enjoying this, exactly?
Distracted by the thought, she didn't dance out of the way and he got his leg between her own and managed to take her down.
(She couldn't ignore the look of accomplishment that flashed before the surprise on his face, nor the way he quickly cupped the back of her head with one hand on the way down as he tried to soften their landing with the other. In a real fight it could get him seriously hurt and she should have felt her mouth opening to say that, to chastise him, but the words are caught in her throat.)
Legs tangled, rapid breathing causing the rough fabric of their gees to brush, there was a second where they looked at one another before Emily felt herself trying to regain control.
But Nolan was already giving it to her.
Eyes darting away, he crawled back. "Even revengistas need their sleep, Ems. Naps on the couch don't count," he chastised as he stood, offering her a hand to stand.
If it weren't for the obvious declaration of worry, she'd have taken it. The young woman pushed off the floor on her own.
"Watch where your punches are coming from," she instructed, and they both ignored that if there was a winner to be declared, it would have been him. "They can't come from the shoulder like that. "
He pretended not to notice that she was nervous. "Any chance I'll be Bruce Lee yet, Maestro?" he asked, still catching his breath. His hands were on his hips and he was leaning over slightly.
(Emily didn't watch the drop of sweat that started to roll down his neck and chest. She didn't watch his tongue dart out to nervously lick at his lips.)
Emily Thorne had too much to do to simply stand around. "Keep it up," she called over her shoulder.
The summer continued.
Nolan moved out.
He dated someone. She slept with someone. They would watch one another from across parties with eyes that could be felt even with their backs turned. They continued to work together, and their frequent calls and visits to one another strained their romances to the breaking point, resulting in them leaving the same party together but alone.
They split a bottle of wine in her kitchen as they commiserated. One bottle became two.
Her schemes were stalling, and he apologized for waylaying them. She didn't bother to correct his assumption that her plans were their joint responsibility because at some point this had become their mutual burden and when Emily really thought about it, he had been a part of it from the beginning, in his own way. Years ago, she had reached out to him as she had started down her current path, and part of her would have felt guilty about it, if she allowed it.
Conversation over, they moved to the porch swing and the sound of the surf.
"I'm too drunk to go home," he mumbled on her shoulder with a sigh.
(She leaned into the contact, her lips on his hair.)
She patted his thigh (pretended not to notice the way he couldn't conceal the way he jumped at the touch). "The guest room still has some of your things."
Emily rose first in the morning, and was halfway through the door when he called out to her to wait up, and soon enough she was taking note that he was keeping pace with her on the sand, their feet nearly in synch as they ran.
It was good to know he'd continued to keep up the workouts, and that he was serious in wanting to be able to defend himself, to some degree. (His shirts were becoming more fitted, a little snugger around gradually growing muscle. The changes were subtle but they were observable if you knew a person's shape and shadow the way she knew Nolan Ross.)
"Wanna beat the crap out of me again?" he asked as they climbed the stairs to her home, slightly winded but not exhausted, and a voice in her head screamed that no good would come from it.
(The memory of a hand curled around the back of her head and feel of his hot breath on her face as they fell was more crystal clear and evocative than all her nights with Daniel and where would they go with this from here?)
"Just make sure the curtains are closed," she commanded as they entered the house.
It was long past fifteen minutes.
Nolan was remarkably improved, his form honed and focused, and Emily found herself not holding back as much. His height was an advantage that helped to even things out between them a little more. She was no longer the cat toying with mouse, and she found herself letting go more.
It wasn't wresting. It wasn't karate. It wasn't boxing. It was a little bit of everything and she relished the look on his face when she managed to get her fist just to the side of his head, the side of her hand brushing against the side of his face. He turned his head as she withdrew her balled up hand, and the edge of his lips made contact with her hand. (She was out of breath, and it was mere coincidence her inhalation was audible.)
They kept at it, backing one another momentarily into corners of the room, darting and blocking and ducking and jabbing and kicking. Emily felt perspiration bead and drop down her back, could feel the heat radiating off of Nolan's body each time she got close before moving away, but they pressed on.
She was focused this time, enjoying it. She knew he could see the challenge in her gaze and he was rising to it. Emily kept a running list of notes of what he needed to improve.
He was getting tired, though, and she could see it. Surging forward, she went to kick him, knowing he'd sidestep it and end up directly in the path of the fist she was following with.
Except he didn't.
"Come on, Amanda," he goaded.
He knew it would shake her, and she moved her head to glare at him. Faster than she could ever expect from him, his fingers shot out, grabbed her wrist, and twisted them both around to bring their hands to the small of her back, his other arm coming up to press (lightly) at her throat. She struggled for a moment, her back to his chest, with a frustrated growl.
His chuckle in her ear was a chuff along the warm skin of her neck.
"Can you imagine what someone would think," he said, and she was suddenly hyperaware of his mouth's movements against the skin of her neck, "if they saw us right now? Not very Emily-like, with the kicking and the….was that a growl?"
"You're fighting dirty," she ground out, even as he tipped her head back further, resting it against his shoulder. With her free hand, she unsuccessfully tried to pry his arm away.
He had played on a weakness, and she could, too.
She allowed her back to arch, and she pressed her backside into his pelvis. The noise he made was instantly recognizable – a harsh intake of breath that wanted to come at the same time as a groan. For a moment, she hesitated in her next move, just a heartbeat of time, but the hand holding her hand prisoner between their bodies released and traveled to her hip.
She almost regretted moving the hand from his arm to the back of his head, because she knew what he would think: she was finally giving in to that tension they never spoke of, finally acting on the stolen glances, replying to his worried observations about her lack of sleep or food, finally admitting she saw just how upset he'd become when she had accepted Daniel's proposal, confirming the spike of jealousy she'd felt throughout the entire duration of his relationship with Padma.
Whatever name he was about to use for her (and she almost wished to know which one he was going to use) as he sighed into the crook of her neck and shoulder was wrenched into a sharp noise of surprised pain when she yanked on his hair. With a quick turn around his body, their positions from before were reversed, and he was arching into her own chokehold.
"Dirty!" he yelped.
"You know what I've said about using that name," she warned, low and dangerous (what she needed to be, always had to be) into his ear.
Her bare feet slid across the floor as he pushed them back into the wall, despite her efforts to trip him. "Well you certainly aren't Emily Thorne right now," he retorted, even as the force of her back hitting the wall forced a grunt from her lips.
She wriggled a leg out to push at the back of his knee, but he rotated around and moved his hips into the new space between her legs, converting their bodies into the parody of something more intimate.
(It wasn't as much of a farce as she was trying to convince herself it was.)
The arm hooked around the back of his neck joined her other one to press against his shoulders, but she didn't push him away, even as the space between them was closing.
"Then who am I, Nolan?" she challenged. (She wanted to know, because she certainly didn't, and if there was anyone who could figure out who she was, it was this pair of blue eyes and the man behind them and a part of her wanted to keen with the need for recognition, for identity.) "I'm definitely not Amanda, you say I'm not Emily, so who the hell am I?"
"Don't know," he said, in between gulps of air, suddenly more serious than she had ever seen him. "Don't know yet but I'm telling you now, I'll be here to find out who that is."
Their faces were so close, now. If he still had that ridiculous haircut, it would have become plastered to her own forehead, too, blond on blond and a mutual mess.
"When this is done I'll be here," he affirmed.
Was it obvious, the panic on her face?
Reacting to it, this hips that had been pinning her in place, his erection glaringly obvious, moved away, and he rocked back just enough to allow her to push him and take advantage of his badly placed center of gravity, to slip her leg down, to stomp away, to bark at him that he was out of line. The cool air that rushed to fill the gap was a slap in the face.
Nolan was giving her this out and she should take it (because he wasn't ever a part of this plan, and she knew what would happen if she didn't just fucking move, this very instant.)
He was going to be a bigger liability, an obvious weakness, collateral damage with a probability so high it was laughable not to put money on it.
But he didn't fully step away, either. (Nolan Ross was practically putting himself in the path of some future bullet and she wanted to tell him to stop, to hit him, to make him realize what he was doing.)
"Is that what you promised my father?" It was an easy slap, an easy injury, something for him to latch on to, to create a quick fight to move away from this.
He shook his head, but their eye contact never broke and that feeling of inevitability increased exponentially. The gravely tone of his voice seemed to stick to her skin. "I promised David Clarke I'd look after his daughter, but I think you've been pretty adamant about the fact that you're not Amanda. That's a promise I'm making you."
Done. She was just so done with all of this. Her hands pulled at the collar of his gi as the heel of her foot pushed him closer, and their lips crashed into one another (no survivors expected from this explosion) with bruising, punishing force.
Their sharp tongues and smirking lips had been friends for years now, and had no problem sharing closer quarters. The hand he was not running up her thigh slipped into open neck of her top, dragging down the tank top there, roughly palming a breast and the contact had him swallowing a groan from her mouth. As desperate as their actions were, his touches seemed to convey care; they were caresses. Her deft hands were pulling on the lapels of his top, but her progress was fettered.
"I told you," she breathed into his mouth and it was so nearly a growl of frustration he was laughing and causing her to smile, too, "not to wear that stupid belt."
She was lightheaded and it probably had something to do with the fact that she was breathing in what he exhaled, and it had to be the lack of oxygen between them that caused him to press into her, holding her to the wall with his body. Somehow they found their balance as she yanked at the knot on his obi (the black belt on his hips was a joke because he couldn't have earned it yet and if someone were to ask, that was why she was trying to remove it as quickly as possible.)
The heavy material landed with a loud thump on the floor, but neither seemed to notice. Nolan brought a hand up to curl around the back of her head, to pull her mouth to his own, and she ran fingers down the newly defined muscles of his chest, cataloguing the feel for later appreciation, seeking the thin straps of fabric that kept his top on. She'd already yanked it open at the shoulders, biting at the flesh over his collarbone when his own mouth had latched onto her neck, the need for tit for tat still prevalent even in the moment.
His hands were hot as they danced along her skin, leaving a trail of heat as he sought the second tie of her top He pulled away for the briefest of instants to throw both of their tops to the side, landing somewhere in a pile she couldn't care about.
Cool air hit their skin, igniting twin hisses from swollen lips before they were pressing bare, sweat-slicked skin together to share warmth.
He made a choked noise into her shoulder when she slipped a hand into his pants, thankful for the elastic band because her movements were becoming less coordinated, and her hand wrapped around the heavy, heated skin of his erection. He wasn't as thick as Daniel was, but he was longer. She shouldn't have been comparing them but she felt giddy, wanting to know what he would feel like, buried inside of her.
A similar noise was stolen from her when his own long, clever fingers dipped into her pants and he stroked at the slick, wet heat between her spread legs.
"Oh, fuck," he whimpered, but never said a name, his knees buckling slightly. She rewarded the behavior with a kiss before she pushed his pants entirely down, and he was quick to mirror her actions.
"Great minds," he commented, breathless when it became visibly obvious they had both been bare beneath the heavy white material. She didn't step out of her pants, but her feet slipped out of them when she wound her legs around his hips, his body and hands bracing her against the wall. Her own arms wrapped around his neck, pulling him forward for another kiss.
"Pill," she assured him, almost not understandable in her unsteady voice.
She'd never felt this need before; fucking for Amanda Clarke was all about release, sex for Emily Thorne was entirely just another tool for seduction. This new, strangely unknown person was open and exposed to Nolan Ross and wanting.
"Please," she demanded, tasting salt and sweet, lips brushing together.
"Look at me," he begged as he guided himself to her entrance.
Her memory wasn't eidetic, but it was close, and she would never forget the moment: his eyes wide, pupils so dilated it was hard to see the thin rings of blue that were his irises, the feel of him, hot and hard inside her, the high-pitched breathy noise coming from herself, the smell of sweat and sex and taste of finality. This was it. She was a fucking mess, a broken, horrible pile of sensations and thoughts and plans and he wasn't much better off but here they were after years of trying, finally unable to stave off the inevitable.
His eyes slowly closed, committing to memory the same things she was, and she couldn't have taken her eyes off of the bob of his Adam's apple if her life depended on it. She would have to add the quiet, almost relieved and victorious way he hissed out 'yes' to the memories seared into her brain.
He was slow and methodical as he slipped his dick nearly entirely out and back in, and after the violent way they had torn at one another to get to the moment, the quiet and deliberate timing seemed to hum through her body like that high pitched ringing remained after a bomb detonated.
"Wasted time," he muttered, and the kiss he pressed into her mouth seemed to be a reprimand, his tongue in her mouth a point to prove his argument. "Years."
(Amanda Clarke would have told him to shut up.)
(Emily Thorne would have said the same.)
Eyes closed shut as she tried to move with him and arch her back, she imagined the back of his SUV that night outside of the club, tried to picture what would have happened if she'd just fucked him then or stayed with him at the Chinese restaurant and gone home with him, where would they be now?
Nothing. They'd be nothing. This would have never happened. And if it did...
"Wouldn't be this," she retorted, biting his lower lip, knowing he'd understand.
They ended up on the floor, legs too weak to keep going at it against the wall. She rode him hard until she came with a cry, and he sat up, pulling her legs around his waist, grinding her down onto him like he was trying to engrave the moment into both of their bodies, trying desperately but failing to bring her over the edge again with a finger on her clit, but it didn't work, and he came with a hoarse, surprised shout with his mouth still attached to her breast, and her heart beating wildly against his forehead and her hand on his bowed back.
(Amanda Clarke would tell him to get the fuck out.)
(Emily Thorne would quietly tell him he needed to leave.)
But instead he brought his head up and their lips met with languid movements, like graceful, looping signatures to some binding agreement only known to them. Part of her wanted to recoil, because this meant she would have to take care, to ensure there was something left behind for him when the ashes and shrapnel were cleared away. It was easier to go about her plans with disregard for her own self, but now…
She wasn't even aware of the tears until he brought a shaky hand up to wipe one away.
"I know," he whispered, and if anyone did, it was him. "I'm sorry."
"You're not good at waiting," she accused, trying to leave him an out. It could be months, years, even, and countless hearts and bodies between what they had just recklessly promised.
"I'm going to enjoy proving you wrong." He brought his head back to fix her with a knowing stare, lips grim, and she knew that she wouldn't be able to lie to him like that again.
Nolan Ross had waited for years.
(So had she.)
A few more would hurt, but it was a pain they could bear.
Emily Thorne died in a fire at the Grayson Manor, during the fall of the next year. Victoria Grayson perished as well, and it seemed the final piece of the family's lurid tale.
An anonymous writer published a book with every detail of the true story explained, connecting loose ends for the world to finally understand. People assumed it was Mason Treadwell, and the book sold out instantly. David Clarke's exoneration was happy news to Amanda Clarke-Porter, who seemed to accept this with unbelievable calm during her television interviews, perhaps too preoccupied with her infant son to truly grasp the meaning of it all.
Once the body was identified, the local police department didn't have to, but they knew there was someone who had to be contacted, even though it went against protocol. When they called Nolan Ross with the news, he rushed out of a fashion show in Bryant Park, immediately calling for his plane to be fueled so he could rush to the Hamptons. He rarely ever used his own pilot license, but the short notice meant he would fly his plane alone.
"I don't care about the storm," he was overheard to say as he rushed out, distracting everyone as he made a dramatic exit from the front row. "I need to be with her."
And those were the last known words of the brilliant, quirky millionaire who had revolutionized technology. His plane went down, and the salvage crew easily found his body the next day.
There was a joint memorial service for them. Charlotte Grayson was beside herself, clutching at a piece of paper she refused to let anyone see. Her Hampton neighbors knew how close she'd been to the pretty blond socialite. Like sisters, they said.
Mason Treadwell wrote a brilliant, fictionalized account of the hidden love affair between the two, and the subsequent movie was considered to become a classic of modern cinema. He admitted to knowing about the whole thing in his novel's forward.
Life moved on, the Grayson Manor was torn down. The beach house beside it, with its complicated past, continued to stand, rented out by those who were fascinated by the multiple tales the house had witnessed.
The Hamptons recovered, but those who were involved in David Clarke's framing weren't there to see it. The people in Emily and Nolan's lives never fully recovered.
(Emily and Nolan were buried beside one another. It seemed to be what he wanted. She had hinted at it in her will, too.)
Declan didn't bother to turn his head when he heard the door open, because he knew who it was. Jack and Amanda had taken the kids away on vacation, so he and Charley had promised to look after things. Customers at the Stowaway were few and far between at this time of day, and the family of out of town visitors was already seated at a table, their two children excited about the visit and chattering away.
The parents were sun kissed and wore their ages like proud banners of their years. Her hair was a mousy brown, and wind swept, and his mustache was shot with gray. He had a ridiculous hat, and her hair was a bit too long to be fashionable (she didn't seem the sort to care). They had more wrinkles around the eyes than around their mouths, and the way they seemed to gravitate towards one another left him smiling fondly.
Charlotte wrapped her arms around his middle from behind, and he ran his hand over hers, his fingers finding the cool medal of their matching, modest wedding bands.
"Think that's gonna be us when we're their age?" he asked in a quiet, content voice despite the fact that the couple was facing away from them. He jerked his chin in the direction of the family, and the arm the husband had around his wife's back, her own hand linked with his as they seemed happy to simply watch the children both play with a tablet between them, shouting out things they wanted to see on their trip.
"I certainly hope so," she murmured. "Will you be around in ten years or so to find out?"
The family finished a short while later, and Declan cleaned up after them (not that there was much to clean, since they'd stacked plates and gathered cutlery). He held up the generous tip in one hand.
"They congratulated us….did you know them, babe?"
She turned to look out the window, finally getting a chance to see the couple's faces as they herded their kids back into their car. The husband walked around the car after a quick wave in Charlotte and Declan's direction, but the wife lingered.
Charlotte felt her eyes well up with tears, bringing a shaking hand up to wave as the woman got back in the car.
She knew that soft smile. It had been years since the woman she had known as Emily Thorne had explained the truth to her in a letter, a letter she'd treasured, kept along with a box of David Clarke's things.
By the time she had turned from looking at Declan back to the window, the family's vehicle had pulled away.
"Don't you think that maybe they're out there, together?" Charlotte asks as Mason Treadwell serves them both tea. "I've read online, that maybe-"
"Oh yes, the conspiracy theories. Miss Grayson, I've heard them all. That Emily Thorne was really Amanda Clarke. That Nolan Ross knew that….conspired with her, even. There are others. There are better ones, more logical ones, too."
In his doubts there is truth, but she's not going to be the one to tell him. She can't believe that the woman she's just discovered to actually be her sister is dead. "They say they made it look like he crashed, that she really didn't die in the fire."
"They say the same thing about Amelia and Fred, don't they?" he responds, a sad sort of smile on his face that breaks the character he's spend over a decade perfecting. "But you knew that already."
"I just can't believe that they're-"
"Then don't," he says simply. "I did my research; I know you were already voted 'Class Optimist' before your rehab stint. You can't help but want to believe that they're out there, alive. So believe it, Miss Grayson. Believe they are out there enjoying the world, together, and move on with your life. Believe that all four of them are on their little island together."
Charlotte Porter watched their car drive away, could have run after it.
(If she found out the truth it would be another heartbreak or another secret, and she had more than her share of those already.)
Life went on for those who survived.